Rob Frankel - Branding Expert

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Saying Goodbye with a Kiss

It's been a long time, but I still have nightmares about it. You probably do, too. The Date From Hell, remember? Remember meeting that girl or guy that you knew from the start was wrong for you?

I sure remember. I would be in the middle of a dating cold streak -- a spell so dry that it drew fan mail from priests -- when somebody, somewhere would set me up on a blind date. I'd put on my best new attitude and go on the date. Of course, the minute I got there I knew she was all wrong for me. But I figured, "Hey, she's not so bad. Maybe I should give her a chance."

And I did. Which was my biggest mistake.

It was a mistake because I knew it was wrong to begin with. Instead of longing for her to call, I dreaded it. I had to think up stories to stall her off. But I had few alternatives. So I went right ahead made my second mistake.

I figured that if I asked her out again, she might turn me down and I'd be out of it forever. No such luck. She said yes. So now it had gone beyond one date and was beginning to fester into a -- gulp -- relationship.

And so the torture continued, with every one of my plans backfiring on me. My brain was racked with guilt: on the one hand, I was trying to be kind to the Date From Hell by letting her down gently. On the other, I knew I was doomed to meeting her parents if I didn't think up something fast.

And then it hit me: how about using the truth?

The truth! Now there's a strategy that doesn't occur to you every day. I put together a rather convincing argument that she was terrific. I was terrific. But together, we weren't so terrific. In fact, what we had was two terrific people and one incredibly bad fit.

She bought it. And from that day on, I rarely left any relationship on anything other than good terms.

So why would I bore you with this story? Because there are times when business goes from slow to dead. And those are the times when we're most vulnerable to taking on bad business and less than desirable clients. Sure, we rationalize that we have to pay the rent. But just like the Date From Hell, we know it's wrong the minute we sign them up.

So how do you get out of a bad relationship?

Well, it starts at the beginning of the relationship. Always have the client sign a service agreement that outlines the ground rules of the relationship. They key items are specifying what has to be done, how to tell when each task is completed and how long the relationship is supposed to last.

That last point is critical, because it acts as a "dead man's" switch, terminating the relationship per the terms of the agreement. Which means that in the worst of cases, you can bite the bullet and then choose not to renew.

Of course, for those of us who haven't yet learned that lesson, you have to take the more direct route, and like the Date From Hell situation, use the tool they least expect: the truth.

Chances are that if your client is making your life a living hell, they already suspect the relationship is no good. Just like the Date From Hell, they're probably looking for a way out, too. But even if they're not, you have to keep in mind that hell hath no fury like a client scorned. While tossing off excuses like, "we're too busy to handle your account" may feel good while you're actually saying it, it can come up on you faster than rotten garlic when it comes to ruining your professional reputation. All it takes is one prospective client to call your last kissed-off puppy to scuttle your entire fiscal year.

I've found that there are two truthful, ethical ways to deal with bad clients. The first is to raise your rates. Really high. The wisdom here is that if you're really going to suffer, you might as well get rich from it. But you can truthfully tell your client that servicing their account does indeed require more resources than you originally expected. If they buy it, they'll pay. If they don't they'll walk. Either way, you win.

Of course, there are going to be times when nothing but the truth is going to suffice. And in those cases, I suggest you take the high road and tell the client what they need to hear: they're terrific and you're terrific. But together, you're not so terrific. What you've got here is a bad fit. Say that and you'll get the one thing you thought you'd never, ever get from that client:

Real respect.

Pledge to finish what you've started, but take on no new projects. Offer to help them find a replacement for you. Then you can waltz away freely, knowing that the Client From Hell won't be badmouthing you around town.

They might even recommend you for the way you handled the gig.

Amateurs kiss off bad clients. A real pro says goodbye with a kiss.

Rob Frankel

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