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Passion, People and Principles

We Don’t work for Jerks

post # 327 — March 9, 2007 — a Managing, Strategy post

As I reported inmy book PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH, one of the hallmarks of the most successful professional businesses is that they recognize that, for long-run success, you must not only delight your clients but also provide interesting, challenging work experiences for your people.

That seems simple enough, but too few firms understand (and implement) the logical consequence: that you must say “no” to clients who treat you or your people badly. Not only must you not employ jerks (as Bob Sutton keeps reminding in his new book), but you must also not accept them as clients.

Richard Ennis, the co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Ennis Knupp Associates (a 100-person consulting firm which provides advice to pension funds and other major investors on how to invest their assets) reports that the key to his organization’s success is that they have been very selective as to which clients they will take on. (They pursue only about 50 percent of the requests to propose that they receive.)

“Let’s face it” he says. “Some clients are nasty. And you can’t expect to hold on to good people, at junior or senior levels, if you bring in work where they are not going to be treated properly.”

Oh, if only more CEOs and managing partners understood that simple principle.

Does your boss?

When you’re the boss, do you always live by that principle?


Fran said:

That’s true. We don’t want to jeopardize are company’s reputation and performance by completing our jerk client’s tasks. Their nasty requests might get you no where. It will be just a waste of time.

posted on March 9, 2007

Will Swayne said:

Hi David. I couldn’t agree more that the way clients treat staff impacts the way staff feel about their work and hence their performance and loyalty.

On the rare occasion that we have a disagreeable client, we use a variety of strategies to get rid of them including not making ourselves available for future projects, terminating an ongoing project without refund of progress payments or terminating a project with refund of progress payments.

It’s also possible to identify many problematic clients in advance – if they’re rude and demanding BEFORE they become your client, chances are it’s only going to get worse.

One red flag I’ve noticed is when prospective clients start bad-mouthing their existing suppliers or other team members (the “everyone’s an idiot except me” syndrome), that’s a good time to run a mile.

Thanks for a great post!

posted on March 9, 2007

Sonnie said:

How I wish all bosses will be like that. Sometimes, what matters is the revenues that the clients or guests will generate. Poor employees, sometimes they got fired when they run out of patience.

To some bosses I know, the customer is ALWAYS right!

posted on March 10, 2007

Ashutosh Wakankar said:

While there cannot be disagreement on the broad principle, I would be a little careful before coming to the conclusion that a client is a ‘jerk’. More often it is just a question of not being like-minded and having different styles of working but if a client has had a reasonable level of success doing what they do, i would still give them the benefit of doubt and spend a lot of time understanding the context they operate from before coming to that conclusion. And even then the conclusion would not be about making them bad but just agreeing to disagree on a certain styles of functioning.

Most often, however, i have seen that it is your own strong sense of how a piece of work and a relationship needs to be, that sets the tone for a particular.

I am a brand strategy consultant and everywhere we are sharing the table with ad agencies which have over the years have drifted downstream (atleast in India) and are now delivering a certain kind of solution with a certian kind of talent that they seem to be attracting. The same client operates in a very different mode with them compared to our firm.

Most often relationships are not a given but they settle into a certain pattern depending on what each party comes to expect as the way of the other. Even in very seriously dysfunctional cultures, an early pushback on a late payment or last minute changes in meetings etc. can set the tone for a productive engagement…

Bottomline being— there aren’t too many jerks who can be successful over longish period of time. It catches up fairly quickly. So my first response would be to understand and relate before rejecting an assignment.

posted on March 12, 2007

Wally Bock said:

Very often the nasty behavior is something that the boss won’t witness. There are people who will almost gleefully abuse people they think are powerless against them, while they suck up to others. If you are the boss, you are more likely to be in the “sucked up to” group. That means you have to be tied in to your people so you can hear their stories.

posted on March 12, 2007