Clients Aren't Always Right

Last Updated Oct 19, 2010 5:20 PM EDT

By Susan Roth, CEO of Trims Unlimited, Los Angeles
My client base is the C-suite: decision-makers and executives in the business-to-business marketplace. We source corporate gifts and branded products for executive conferences and events and are well known for fulfilling all sorts of last minute and unusual requests, such as 10 electric guitars with signatures from 600 people on the background. Like most small business owners, I initially bought into the mantra that "the customer is always right." But as I matured, I realized that sometimes the customer isn't always right, and some clients ask too much of you.

In those cases, I learned you can do one of two things: Keep trying to do the impossible and fail -- which leaves you with a toxic customer relationship that is just as bad for them as it is for you -- or be straightforward about why a request isn't possible and then look for a mutually agreeable solution. When all else fails, I politely part ways -- even if that means directing them to another service provider.

Drawing a line
My company has been growing steadily since I inherited it after my mother's death in 1985. I have five full-time employees and a contract with an 85,000 square foot warehouse with 88 employees. We regularly gross in excess of $3.5 million a year and maintain long-standing relationships with about 75 active corporate clients.

We offer a wide range of products -- luxury, name-brand and custom -- at competitive prices and provide customer service as a way to differentiate ourselves from our competition. Nevertheless, some customers, while demanding the impossible, are unwilling to accept that the impossible sometimes costs more in the form of rush fees, under minimum charges and expedited overseas shipping. In one instance, we called in our warehouse staff on a Sunday to correct a client's error. We got it done but they balked at covering the overtime costs. We explained the reason behind the extra costs, they eventually accepted and paid the bill, and they have since re-ordered.

When things happen to a regular customer, you absorb some of the extra expenses -- but only to a point. Even with regular clients it's important to set reasonable boundaries in the beginning to avoid confusion, or worse, later on. And if those boundaries are crossed, it's important to make that clear as well.

We happen to have one client, an event planner, who regularly comes to us for ideas for a Fortune 500 Company. She wants to send business our way, and we appreciate it. We always put a great deal of time and effort into researching and sourcing a variety of options for our clients -- we make our money when an order is placed -- but her client never pulls the trigger.

The last time she came to us asking for ideas, I told her nicely that we just couldn't help her without some guarantee that her client would eventually place an order. She understood our position and communicated my message to her client. They placed an order.

Instead of letting the relationship sour over a potentially unintentional abuse of our services, I brought it to her attention. She accepted my position, and as a result we still have a strong relationship with her and her client.

Sometimes great just isn't enough
Things don't always work out so well. A while back we had an on-again, off-again client call us for gift ideas for an event she was putting on. It was a corporate dinner that featured Bill Clinton as the guest speaker and it was filled with Fortune 100 and 500 CEOs. We gave her our product suggestions, but never heard back. It turns out that she took our ideas and went to the supplier directly to order what she needed. It was an unfortunate decision because the supplier was a careless engraver -- which we already knew. He used an obsolete corporate logo rather than looking at the newer logo and making a new die. Now in a bind, she sheepishly called us for new, last minute ideas -- on the Friday afternoon of President's Day weekend, with the event scheduled for that Monday. She knew we could deliver, and we did. Have we heard from her again? Not a peep. Would we do it again if she asked? No way.

I helped her because my company had a long-standing relationship with hers, and I didn't want to rock the boat. But I recognized that if we kept doing business with her, we could expect more of the same. As much as I wanted to maintain the relationship with the company, the relationship with that contact wasn't working out. The door's open, just not if she's on the other side.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, the client isn't always right -- and that's OK. Sometimes issues can be resolved, and sometimes they can't. When it's time to part ways, I always leave the door open. After all, it's a small world out there and there's no point in burning bridges unnecessarily. As a business owner you have to be mature enough to recognize when a relationship isn't working, and strong enough to step in to change things before it becomes a drag on morale and a hindrance to business in general.

Susan Roth inherited Trims Unlimited, her mother's personal shopping business, in 1985. She changed the company's focus from personal shopping to corporate gifts, and moved the office from New York to Los Angeles.
-- As told to Kathryn Hawkins