My Worst Customer Nearly Cannibalized My Entire Business.
I don’t think your experience will be as extreme as mine.
For better (usually) or worse (sometimes), growing up on a farm has profoundly shaped my views on work. My family has worked the same ground for seven generations. Some of the neighboring farms have been stewarded for nearly as long. It’s still a place where handshake deals matter. And if you say you’re going to show up to help, you’d better be there.
The line between business and neighborliness often blurs in farming. You might pay a neighbor to get your hay out, but also help with that same neighbors cows. There’s never a thought to ask for a discount, because an interdependence exists. You may be offering pay and free help at this moment. But next year you could be out of town when a deer hunter carelessly cuts through your fence, and your livestock are wandering the highway.
At that moment, you either have strong neighborly relationships, or you have a bunch of dead sheep and cattle littering the roadside and a possible lawsuit or two from the people who hit them.
But the lessons of the family farm don’t always translate to the wider world.
One of the toughest things about the last 18 months was splitting with my largest (at the time) client.
Originally, this client was a signature win. One of those moments where you bring home a bottle of wine and tell you spouse the good news. But then the joy turned to ashes.
The manager of the business would call me at odd times. If I didn’t pick up, he’d text me to call him ASAP. I’d run out of church or step out of a movie, only to get caught in a meandering conversation about nothing. No deadlines were set on these calls. No deliverables were landed on. The manager just assumed that the money that was being paid to my company included 24/7 access for a listening ear about projects that would never become reality.
And I allowed it.
I was new in business with a baby on the way, and I thought nothing could be worse than losing that contract.
There was one worse option. Keeping it.
The client company would often double the length of meetings, with no notice. Extra work was demanded. Overall, the requests became more unreasonable each month.
I squared my shoulers and handled all of it. Looking back, I think I made about $11–12/hour, and that’s before the costs of travel and software for the project are deducted.
Now that it’s finally over, I’ve got one particular Taylor Swift song on repeat.
Now that the nightmare is over, here’s what I’ll do in the future. And what you should do whether you’re a part time freelancer or managing a major division of a Fortune 500 company.
1. Get it in Writing Up Front. ALL of It.
Handshake deals are great if your great grandparents survived the Great Depression with the other party’s great grandparents. The social fabric will hold it all together.
Oh, that’s not the case? Write. It. All. Down.
That way, you’ve got something to go back to in order to explain why you can’t/won’t do something.
2. Don’t Default to Panic Mode
Is the client panicked? Angry? Despondent?
Those emotions communicated via text message or email tend to put the human brain in over-drive.
Before you interrupt your weekend or pull an ill advised all nighter, consider why you’re in this position. Often as not, it’s because the client wasn’t good at adulting that week.
You have two choices. The first is to train the client that you’ll do absolutely anything for a couple bucks. You see characters like this in old westerns. The villain makes the town drunk crawl across the floor or put his head in the horse watering trough in exchange for a couple of quarters to buy beer.
The second option is to train the client that you don’t accept that kind of behavior.
Your call. But it will go one way or another.
3. Don’t Get Too Dependent Any One Client
Stay focused on growth so that if any one (or two, or three) clients bail because yourself or your team wouldn’t serve as emotional punching bags, the ship won’t sink.
4. Read Boundaries by Henry Cloud
It’s a relationship book. Business is a network of relationships.
“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where i end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences. And you are the one who may be keeping yourself from making the choices you could be happy with. We must own our own thoughts and clarify distorted thinking.”
5. Move On to Bigger and Better
I experienced a ton of anxiety over the bad client breakup.
But it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. For one, I’m a lot happier. So are the people who work with me.
But odds are your company will make more money without the vampire client anyway. I had no idea how much of my time, and more importantly emotional energy, was being sucked up by a company who bought a few hours of work a week, and acted like they owned me as a person.
I honesty believe that if the breakup hadn’t happened, the vampire client might have sucked the last drops of blood out of my company, Digital Profit Farm.
Toxic people will steal your autonomy, wallet, emotional health.
Toxic companies will steal your profits, sanity and confidence.
Don’t let them. Business is a gamble every day.
And you should never be afraid to just grab your chips and walk away from that table.
The game will continue, I promise.
Seth Tower Hurd