You’ve probably been in a similar situation: your insistent client approaches you with “this great idea” about—choose one here—feed, supplements, training, your pricing structure or other clients. Worse still, this know-it-all customer is riling up your other boarders. How do you handle your rebel-with-a-cause before good intentions turn things bad for you and your boarders?
Diplomacy Pays Dividends
With training operations in both Hollis, N. H., and Aiken, S. C., seasoned eventer Alison Eastman-Lawler of Apple Tree Farm is lucky, she says, to have “a great group of clients”—70 students and a strong boarding business. “Of course some can be difficult, but I humor them and I’m very open. I take lots of lessons myself and I’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s try it [their big idea].’ Then if I think it’s crazy, I’ll show them in a nice way that it doesn’t work for them. If they persist with their wants, I’ll say, ‘This is the way we do it here’ as nicely as possible.”
When asked to recount a particularly challenging situation, Eastman-Lawler answers quickly: “I once had a boarder who bought a nasty pony against my recommendation, but I didn’t say ‘I told you so.’ Every time she received a bill, though, she’d whine, even though she knew exactly what the charges were. She got another boarder riled up and upset. Thankfully, this client ultimately left for a ‘backyard’ situation.”
Across the miles and out West is Sabine K. Kallas of Jackson, Wyo., who has been training dressage since 1987. Her situation is common for trainers who don’t live in or near a major metropolitan area, because her dressage community is quite small and she has no indoor arena when temperatures plummet. “We’re off the beaten track, totally encapsulated,” says Kallas, “and happily for me, my clients are eager to do this [sport] right, learning for their own sakes.”
Kallas has little trouble with know-it-alls, perhaps because they rely on her for expertise. Still, she knows they surf the Internet and watch rides on television and in videos, and “questions do pop up as they try to educate themselves,” she says. “It’s interesting: the ones that know a little bit realize how little we all know.”
Some trainers actually appreciate know-it-alls (up to a point). New ideas surface constantly, says Alice Page of Kingsport, Tenn., who with her sister trains Paso Finos, hunters/jumpers, Tennessee Walking Horses and even gaited mules—whatever her clients want to ride. “I’m open if clients have something new to try with their horses; they’re paying the bill. You can’t change everything, but I’ll consider it if the idea will make things better—unless it’s totally off the wall. I will give the benefit of the doubt. This is a people business and I don’t want to make someone feel small, because even though I’ve lived and breathed this business my whole life doesn’t mean I know it all.”
Being open also makes it easier to reject a bad idea. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Let me think about this and I’ll get back to you,’ rather than making an instant rash judgment,” Page says. “I’ll treat the client with respect and really listen, so I can make common sense in my rebuttal.”
The Benefits of Seniority
Not all veteran trainers are so accommodating.
Age has its privileges, including the confidence and clientele base to tell a know-it-all to hit the road. Allen Mitchels of Michigan, City, Ind., began his career more than 25 years ago and now possesses a very impressive international resumé, including tenure as NRHA Director of Judges and FEI Reining Judges Course Director. He operates a training stable and is also an approved judge for AQHA, NCHA and the NSBA.
Mitchels remembers that, as a younger person starting a business, “it’s easy to feel you should do what clients want you to do.” It can be a matter of economic survival. Now, with 22 outside horses in training, he can leave the know-it-alls behind. Many of his clients have been with him for 10 to 25 years, and they leave it to him to help develop their world champions and futurity winners. They don’t mess with his success. “If they have a ‘big idea,’ I just won’t tolerate it,” says Mitchels flatly.
He recalls one former client who repeatedly unlocked the feed room to give extra grain to her horse: she just knew he wasn’t getting enough. Ultimately, the horse got sick, and Mitchels told her to find somewhere else to board. Admittedly, a younger trainer, not as well established, doesn’t always have this option.
But not all veteran trainers are quick to reject suggestions, even if they seem strange. With hundreds of consistent wins in the hunter ring, trainers Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta of Camden, S. C., discuss “anything that comes up,” says Robertshaw, who is on the USHJA’s National Hunter Committee.
Both veterans consider clients’ requests. “We feel that whenever a customer approaches us with an idea, whatever they’ve read has some foundation. Our best line of defense is what’s been tried and proven through the years, but we’re always very open-minded.
“In terms of trying maybe a new feed or supplement, our biggest fear is that we’ve gotten a good diet worked out and that helps us with health management and the horse’s soundness. It’s part of the program,” says Robertshaw.
Most of their clients are long-time customers who trust these trainers. “So if they thought something was fishy they’d come to us first; they know not to listen to each other unnecessarily. We don’t try to present newfangled ideas, but everything we do goes back to a theory of basics.”
If a client has a new idea about position or seat, Robertshaw, also an in-demand judge, is quick to cite his commitment to Gordon Wright’s classic book, “Learning to Ride, Hunt and Show.” “It demonstrates what a proper working position does for you, with proven theory that you can stand behind. Sure, we might hear about different or new ways to do things, but we know that deep down, none of it is going to make a big difference, and in the long haul, we stand by what’s tried and true.”
But there’s always some new idea or concept circulating under the horse-business sun, and you want your customers to be forward thinkers. . .to a point. They’ve come to you for your expertise and guidance, and only you can cultivate your negotiation skills to asses these ideas and, when necessary, creatively nip trouble in the bud.