Firing Clients

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If you’ve spent time and effort building your customer base, it might shock you to think of firing clients. But at times parting company with a difficult client may be the best thing you can do for your business. The big problem is deciding when to do it, and how. A client who leaves your barn angry and resentful may bad-mouth you and your business, creating a host of new problems.

We asked three successful independent trainers how they handle this sticky situation. Cathy Hanson, a top Quarter Horse trainer in San Juan Capistrano, California, has trained horses and riders to national championships in western pleasure and more than half a dozen other events. Carla Sharp, of Easton, Connecticut, has coached students to zone championships and national finals in USAEq hunter and equitation competition. And Joanne Fox maintains a public Arabian horse training facility in Santa Ynez, California. She and her amateur riders have won championships and top-ten awards in events ranging from country English pleasure to costume.

These trainers work in different worlds, but they have much in common. All three work with a limited number of horses and riders, and their goals are focused. In their businesses, difficult clients stick out like weeds in a well-tended garden. Not surprisingly, they’ve learned how to identify—and pull—those weeds.

Why Say Goodbye?

Four kinds of problem clients are top candidates for pink slips, the trainers say.

Pot stirrers: These people sour your barn’s atmosphere with backbiting and negative comments about you or other riders.

Deadbeats: For these people, the check is always in the mail…and when it turns up, it bounces. The three trainers say they seldom have problems with non-payers. But unless you’re running your stable as a charity, clients who don’t pay can’t stay.

Black holes: These clients seem to think that you were put on earth to serve only them, making demands on your time and attention that far exceed what you can provide.

Misfits: Different goals, abilities, training philosophies—lots of factors can make your stable an unhappy fit for some clients. Most problem clients fall in this category, the trainers say, although the factors that cause problems vary from barn to barn.

“Every barn has a personality,” says Fox. “I work mainly with open performance horses and adult amateurs. Some barns cater more to junior riders. Some are less show-oriented, and some focus exclusively on national shows. A client who’s incompatible with the goals or personality of the barn will be unhappy and frustrated.”

That’s a problem, and not just for the incompatible client. “When one person is unhappy, it’s disconcerting for everyone,” says Sharp. “Everyone begins to dread seeing that person.”

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Most stable owners dread confrontation as much as they dislike dealing with problem clients on a daily basis, so bad situations can fester for months. It’s easier, says Fox, to prevent problems in the first place by screening prospective clients carefully. If she’s concerned that someone won’t fit well in her program, she turns that person down or agrees to a short trial period—30 days, or through the next show—to see if the fit is right.

Even careful screening won’t prevent a few difficult clients from slipping into your barn at some point. But misfits may take matters into their own hands, sparing you the difficulty of dealing with the problem.

“Most of the time people figure out they don’t belong and leave on their own accord,” says Sharp. Needy clients tend to seek another place, she adds, when they’re just not getting all they want. But if that doesn’t happen, she adds, “It’s to your advantage to take the initiative and help them.”

Evaluate the situation carefully before coming to a decision. Is the client worth keeping? Can you work through the problem? Says Fox: “It’s important to keep lines of communication open. If an owner has unrealistic ambitions for his horse and is frustrated, you need to be honest about the horse’s ability.” If the client insists on shooting for unrealistic goals anyway, she may agree to give the project another 30 days of solid effort; but after that it’s time to move on.

What if your efforts to communicate fall on deaf ears? “If there’s someone the client is friendly with or rides with regularly, I might try to work through that person, to see if she can help solve the problem,” says Sharp. But Sharp notes that even when communication brings an improvement in behavior, the change often doesn’t last. Six months later, the situation is as sour as ever—and then it’s time to say goodbye.

Along with keeping communication lines open, Fox believes it’s important for professionals to set boundaries in their relations with clients. “In this business, professionals tend to become friends with their clients. You’re together at parties and holidays and dinners, not just at the barn and at horse shows,” she says. Socializing is fine, but as the business relationship veers more toward friendship, it becomes more complicated. Accepting large favors from clients muddies the picture, too. “It’s harder to provide candid criticism to a friend,” says Fox, “and harder to charge for braiding a horse’s mane if the owners just lent you their vacation home.” Parting company with a client will likewise be a lot easier if you’ve kept the relationship strictly business.

When It’s Over

If you’ve decided that you need to end your relationship with a client, for whatever reason, it's important to handle the situation professionally. “Dealing with a non-payer is easy because it’s not personal,” says Sharp. “You give the client an ultimatum, and if it’s not met, you take legal action.”

Other situations require careful handling because they’re rife with opportunities for hurt feelings, resentment and hostility. You may be furious over the disruption a client has caused or nasty comments made behind your back, but for the sake of your professional reputation, take the high road. The client never needs to know how you really feel.

The trainers we talked to all present the decision to sever ties in terms of what’s best for the client. In fact, they might be reading from the same script. Here’s how Hanson does it:

“I sit down with the client and tell her, ‘It’s important to me that you’re happy in your training program, and I feel there may be a better place for you.’ The client may insist that she really wants to stay, but I stick to my guns and say, ‘I just don’t think this is the right program for your horse.’”

Fox takes the same approach: “If I’m at an impasse with a difficult client, I’ll say, ‘I think you’d do better in another environment.’ If the client has unrealistic ambitions, I’ll say, ‘I don’t think I can accomplish this with your horse.’” Fox adds that it’s essential to pick a quiet time for these discussions, and do it in private—“never at a horse show, where people are tired and frustrated.”

Sometimes a misfit client needs help in choosing a new direction, says Sharp. “I try to help the person figure out what it is she really wants to do with her horse, and then help her find a place where she can do it. I try to suggest places where she might find what she needs.”

Hanson likewise is ready with names of other trainers she thinks would work well with the departing client’s horse, and she offers to help contact them and make arrangements.

Fox does the same. “Be supportive, and leave the door open so the person can come to you for future advice,” she says. “Some clients go on and do well at their new barns. Because you’ve recommended the change, there’s no lingering hostility.”

The takeaway message is this: If you have difficult, negative clients, don’t be afraid to confront the situation. But deal with it in a positive, professional way—instead of simply firing them, send them in new directions.

The Legal View

Parting company with a difficult client can raise legal issues, says Julie Fershtman, an attorney in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

Notice: If you have a boarding or training contract, it should specify the notice period required for termination. Without a contract, you’re still required to give reasonable notice. “Get out tomorrow” isn’t reasonable because your client won’t be able to find another place for his horse that fast. But 30 days should be enough. Fershtman advises giving notice in writing, to avoid misunderstandings.

Payment: If the client hasn’t paid his board or training bill and ignores your efforts to collect, there are several ways to proceed. You can bring an action in small-claims court. If the horse is still in your care, you may be able to take possession of it under a stableman’s lien and sell it. (Lien laws vary from state to state; find your own state’s laws at www.law.utexas.edu/dawson.)

Property: If a departed client leaves her tack trunk in the aisle, you and your clients can’t make free with the contents. You may eventually take possession of items left behind under your state’s laws of abandonment—but that’ll require a waiting period and some formal legal steps. Meanwhile, consider these items left in your care, and put them someplace safe.

Refunds: What if the client demands a refund? You can avoid this, Fershtman notes, with a contract that’s drafted specifically for your business. It should give you the right to end relationships for any reason—or no reason —EP