You’ve probably had a client or two who made you want to gouge out your eyes. He or she is what they call “difficult”—never satisfied, high maintenance, in short, an awful lot of trouble. Every meeting with this person becomes a drama of tears, hostility, accusations and denial. You may even have considered walking away from such a client, but according to the co-authors of Clients First: The Two Word Miracle, Joseph and JoAnn Callaway, the last thing you should be thinking of doing is firing your client.

“The business world is full of corporate gurus who advise you to get rid of the ‘bottom 10 percent’—of employees, stores, suppliers, and yes, even clients—because these lackluster organizations and people are only weighing you down,” says Callaway. “I disagree.” Callaway and his wife built a successful real estate business, which has not only survived the boom-and-bust cycle of recent years but thrived. They credit their “never fire a client” credo for that success.

“Deciding to really put clients first, whether they were individuals or institutions, was a remarkable—and remarkably simple—discovery. Even when clients make your life a lot more difficult than it theoretically should be, your job—your professional reason for being—is to serve them.”

Here are three more ways to incorporate the Callaways’ approach into your business:

  1. Look for opportunities to aid your client and yourself. Recognize that clients hire you to help them plan for stressful what-ifs. Put away regret over not spotting a difficult client before beginning your relationship and look for ways to help. “When you truly succeed in helping a client—which could be alleviating anxiety in the short term, and selling or buying a house in the long term—you will have won a fan for life. Often, the most difficult clients are the ones who go on to tell the most people how wonderful you are, and what lengths you went to on their behalf.”
  2. Make a deposit to your “karma bank.” Callaway and his wife say they have never subscribed to a philosophy that involves “cherry-picking” clients. Instead, they have tried to serve every client as best they could, regardless of how much or little they stood to gain in return. “We like to believe that there is a karma bank out there somewhere, and when times are particularly difficult or a client is a real pill, we remind ourselves that we’re making deposits in our karma bank,” says Callaway. “And guess what? While we’ve learned not to have firm expectations when it comes to karma, our efforts and goodwill usually come back to us multiple times over.”
  3. When all else fails, find the lesson. Sometimes you find yourself facing a client who is just plain nasty. According to Callaway, these are “the evil people.” They can be very difficult to spot and trying to avoid them might mean you loose many clients who turn out to be wonderful. If you’ve made a commitment to do the right thing by your clients, you can be confident you have done nothing to warrant a client’s bad behavior. “The most important thing you can learn from dealing with evil people is the art of letting it go. Don’t stand on principle. Don’t anguish. Don’t blame yourself. Just let it go. To do otherwise—to continually engage with a toxic person—is to let him or her win…often at the expense of your peace of mind and sanity.”

Making the commitment to their clients’ best interests was the best business decision the Callaways ever made. The clients they had taken care of in their hour of need returned the favor and helped them achieve outstanding success. “Trust me, everyone wins when you strive to serve instead of expending your energy on figuring out which clients ‘work’ for you.”

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