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Monday, November 21, 2011

Firing clients

Seth Godin has published another gem:  The Unreasonable Customer.

In this post he argues that while there are certain circumstances where maintaining a relationship with an unreasonable customer is justified, in many cases it makes no sense.  This is spot-on advice.

Some clients are demanding, of course, but some are demanding in very constructive, very actionable ways.  The client who pushes ICPSR, say, to deliver content in more interesting, more innovative ways may be difficult, but ultimately makes ICPSR a stronger organization with better services.

But the client who makes demands which are unreasonable, and which take resources away from better serving the other clients only weakens the organization.  Instead of making services better, the organization struggles hopelessly to appease the unreasonable client.  Resources and time are lost.  Staff become exhausted and disillusioned.  Morale sinks.

In the olden days of working in the telecom industry in the mid 1990s I remember a case where a train had derailed and it had torn up a bunch of fiber near the Washington, DC area.  A handful of our clients had consequently lost their network connections.  Our company was doing the right things:  We informed the clients about the problem, and we were keeping close watch on the fiber restoration project, pushing the supplier (I think it might have been MCI) to give our circuits the top priority.  While no one was delighted to be without their Internet connection, they understood that the cause was beyond our control, and that they had made the decision to purchase only a single Internet connection from a single company.  (Clients who needed very, very high availability would routinely purchase multiple Internet connections from multiple providers.)

One client, however, refused to let the team work through the problem.  This client wasn't interested in service restoration; this client wanted to take out all of his frustration on the team.  "You're incompetent!"  "You should all be fired!"  "This is unacceptable!"

I tried to calm the client.  Maybe we could set up something short-term over a dial-up line?  And maybe long-term the right solution is to have more than one Internet connection so that if another train derails (this seemed to happen way more than one would expect) or there is a natural disaster, you'll still have your Internet connectivity?

Nothing worked.  It was clear that this one client didn't want help; he wanted a punching bag.

So we fired him.

"You're right.  It sounds like we're just not the right provider for you.  We can't meet your expectations.  We won't waste any more of your time trying to restore your service.  We'll need you to send back the router, or we will have to bill you for it.  Best wishes, and good luck with your next provider."

That did more for morale than the last ten company picnics and holiday parties combined.

I honestly don't remember if we did end up firing the client, or if just the threat ended his hysterics.  But it definitely changed the relationship, and it proved to the team that we wouldn't let unreasonable people stop them from doing good work.

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