Sometimes A Client From Hell Isn’t

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Guy Kawasaki at How to Change the World wrote “Is Your Client a Certified Orifice?”, a brief post about Bob Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule. I must confess I laughed hilariously when I read both Guy’s post and the title of the book.

If you’ve been in business for any length of time you’ve run across the client from hell; the one who is impossible to please and wants the world but doesn’t want to pay for it. The client who negotiates a deal and then proceeds to break it by demanding more and more. The client who is rude, demanding, calls you at home on a Saturday night then screams at you Monday morning because you weren’t in waiting for the call.

The list goes on.

When you come across the client like this, for many entrepreneurs the key is learning when to fire a client – or listening to your intuition and not taking on a client in the first place. When you’re just starting out you want to take anyone – even when that little voice in the back of your mind is screaming “run away”.

However, there are times when someone looks like a client from hell, acts like a client from hell and sounds like a client from hell. But isn’t. The trick is to know the difference.

Many years ago, in a different lifetime, my husband and I ran a computer store. When you sell computers, you have many customers who are scared of technology. To combat this, we used to have customers take the computer out of the box and set it up in the store before taking it home. This way they could ask any questions and get any help. It made nervous customers feel more confident and cut down on unnecessary calls.

We’d only been in business for about six months when we had our first Christmas. Two days before Christmas, right at closing time we got a call from a customer who had just purchased a computer. The computer was crap, it wouldn’t work, we were awful people and we’d better get over there right away and fix it.

Our policy was that we didn’t do house calls, unless you paid for it. If you had a problem with a computer, you had to bring it in. That said, we could usually talk a customer through a problem over the phone; the most frequent computer defect usually turned out to be a disconnected cable.

My husband’s first inclination was to blow this guy off. He had started the phone call with guns blazing and had set my husband’s back up. Add to the mix that we had our own family Christmas to prepare for plus lots of customers we were still dealing with. He was ready to write this guy off as a client from hell.

But something told me not to let this go. I calmed my husband down and persuaded him to go to the guy’s house even though it was against our policy. After all, it was Christmas.

Less than an hour later he returned a very subdued man. It turns out this irate customer had purchased the computer with his wife as a Christmas present for their grandchildren. Since ordering the computer, his wife had died. This was going to be her last present to the grandkids. He wanted them to be able to wake up Christmas morning and have a working computer waiting for them from Grandma.

There wasn’t anything wrong with the computer. This man just didn’t have anything left in him to wrestle with setting up the computer. His rage at my husband and nothing to do with the computer and everything to do with the curveball life had thrown him.

By taking an hour out of his day, my husband helped this man get through an emotional event without his wife. He made what was going to be a sad Christmas a little happier for some kids. And in the process he created one of our biggest supporters.

I don’t know how I knew that this man wasn’t a client from hell. But I’m glad I listened to my intuition that day.

Andrea J. Stenberg


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