What’s So Good about Goodbye? Your Loss of a Problem Client Can Also Be Your Gain

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The off-the-track Thoroughbred wasn’t happy in his own skin, whether in his stall or out, with other horses or without. The owners—long-time friends of trainer Janna Ritacco of Greenville, S. C.—wanted him fed three times daily.

“They were irritated and I was frustrated and stressed,” says Ritacco, who has focused on Pony Club and eventing for 11 years. With 25 regular clients and a steady riding school business, she also hosts birthday parties for additional “easy” revenue. Ritacco leases the multi-functional property of Riverbend Equestrian Park, home of Greenville Foothills Pony Club.

Her problem horse and its owners ultimately vamoosed to a better fitting program. Ritacco knows it won’t be the last parting of the ways—she is keenly aware when a client should move on in dressage (one of the disciplines she teaches). “At early second level, I refer them to a friend. They still jump with me, so I’m not completely saying ‘goodbye,’” she says.

To a better place

So how do you cut the tie? You can’t hope the client just goes away. One option: Say “I have limited time and I’m unavailable for lessons.” “We have different training philosophies and they don’t jive.” “This isn’t working, and it isn’t safe.” When moving a client on, the goal is to keep the peace if possible—it’s a small (horse) world.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Attorney Rachel McCart of Equine Legal Solutions recalls a fearful rider in a class with other more confident riders: The lone ranger usurped the trainer’s time and others felt understandably slighted. That trainer called her professional contacts, found a more suitable program and supervised a smooth exit with few ruffled emotional feathers, thus preserving the relationship.

When you’re absolutely, positively ready to part ways, serve the client with a 30-day notice. It’s considered polite and more importantly, covers your legal bases, says McCart. But what if it’s ignored and they stay?

“Boarding clients especially may not want to leave what they feel is the best place for them or their horse. Maybe they like the location, amenities,” McCart says.

Tough love

Donald Trump says, “It’s not personal. It’s business.” However, the training relationship is by nature personal, says McCart. “As the termination date approaches, ask the client what their plans are, take their temperature. Are they really leaving? Ask them what you can do to facilitate the move. Maybe they don’t have a trailer, and you can offer to take the horse elsewhere.”

A trainer can terminate the contract—also releasing themselves from liability—and make sure the boarder is gone by the termination date, but you need to make clear they are still obligated to pay. “Boarders may think, ‘We have no contract, we don’t have to pay,’” McCart explains.

And a boarder who doesn’t leave “poisons the well,” she says. “You can take the hard line when they say ‘Make me leave.’ You can say, ‘We don’t have a contract any more, and because the contract is terminated, you don’t have a legal right to be here—paying or not.”

When day 31 occurs, you can then insist, “You have to move. If you persist, I’ll call law enforcement,” says McCart. A sheriff who comes once will be pleasant, although irritated knowing he has real criminals to pursue, she observes. “Call the sheriff a second time: That never fails to work.”

The take-away message: Look inside yourself, be honest, and recognize when a situation is just not working or when a client might have outgrown your services. The goal is to keep everyone happy, including yourself, and to keep the lines of communication open. After all, no-one likes an unhappy ending.