The challenge with being in a service business is, well, providing the best customer service. And providing the best service often means doing what’s best for your business and not necessarily what the client wants. After all, as a consultant you are the expert in your field, and the client is paying you for your expertise. In essence, they are paying you to disagree with them when necessary, and that is not always pleasant.
During my years working with different PR agencies I have worked with a number of difficult clients. My agency bosses always emphasized to me that the client is always right, even when they are wrong, and there have been many instances when I have been put in an uncomfortable situation because the client asked for six impossible things before breakfast, and the agency bosses were too concerned about losing the account to say “no.” (Note that this is not universally true, and that I have had some wonderful bosses in my day who would never ask me to compromise my professional integrity.) However, one of the advantages of running your own business is you get to say “no” when you want to, and you get to decide what’s impossible, what’s not, and what can be delivered before breakfast.
The truth is, you run your business, your clients’ don’t. Granted, your clients pay the bills and keeping them happy keeps the lights on, but if you have a client who asks you to do something unethical or illegal, or even unpleasant, then you have to ask yourself how far you are willing to go to keep the customers satisfied.
I have been following a lot of commentary these past two weeks about Netflix decision to split its streaming and DVD businesses, and the backlash over the latest changes to the Facebook interface. These changes have created a number of pissed off customers, which has generated a lot of negative traffic on the Web. As Eric Brown noted, however, in a recent blog post for Social Media Explorer entitled “Always Listening to the Customer is a Race to Mediocrity”:
Perhaps we can all do a better job delivering news, however no one knows or sees what that Entrepreneur, CEO, or Business Owner sees. No one has the information he or she has to know why they made the decision they made. And here is another dirty little secret, your customers haven’t a clue about what your the next innovation or product release should be. Even the best evangelist, if they really exist don’t know the next answer, otherwise they would be the Entrepreneur.
Your customers don’t have your best interests in mind, and they actually don’t really care if you stay in business, no matter how loyal they are. You have to determine your own future, which means you often have to make tough decisions to protect your business. You have to assess whether a client relationship is going to cost you more in the long run than it’s worth to you. And there are different ways to assess costs, whether the client is not respectful of your time which means you can’t service other clients; whether they aren’t respectful of your ethics which could damage your reputation; or they are just too hard to work with which will cost you your sanity.
If you give your client your best counsel and they choose to reject it, that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. But you don’t have to watch a train wreck either just to have the satisfaction of saying, “I told you so”; that won’t help your professional reputation. And you don’t have to be a slave to your clients, or let them abuse your professional relationship by demanding more than you are willing to commit to, or they are willing to actually pay for. It’s still your business, and sometimes you just have to just say “no!”