The customer is always right. By now you've probably been in business long enough to know that there are exceptions to every rule—even that one.
There's bound to come a time when you have a customer who isn't only wrong, but who causes you stress, minimizes your profits and tests your principles. When your attempts to resolve the problem fall on a deaf ear, then you have to decide whether or not the amount of time and emotional energy you expend on serving that client are worth the income he generates.
Fear of financial loss and concern about damaging your reputation can certainly make you wary about "firing" a dentist-client. But laboratory owners who have wrangled with difficult clients say it eventually is clear that ending the relationships is crucial to your business's well-being—and to your peace of mind.
"You have to be able to say to a problem customer, 'Look, I have employees to pay and a business to run. If you can't help me make a profit, then I can't help you,'" says Greg Thayer, CDT, owner of Thayer Dental Laboratory in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. "What you don't want to do is keep clients that you should get rid of; you'll only internalize the stress and end up hating what you're doing."
So who are these clients you shouldn't keep?
Surely you've met at least one of these tough customers:
He knows it all. This is the client to whom "partnership" is an elusive concept. He is resistant to your suggestions regarding materials or better impression-taking or prepping techniques. Nothing is ever his fault and he resents your passing "judgment" on his work. "I once had a dentist with a 10-15% remake factor and although I tried to talk to him about the problems, he wouldn't listen. I ended the relationship when I realized that, since I wasn't getting paid for the remakes, it would practically be better for me to send him money every month instead of doing his work," says Scott Dyer, CDT, owner of Dyer Dental Laboratory, Las Vegas. "Although it's easier to work out technical problems with an existing client than get a new client, it's hopeless to work with someone who isn't willing to be educated."
He eats up all of your time. Of course you want to offer top-notch service to your clients, but let's face it: there's a limit to what you can do and still be profitable. Greg Thayer describes a client who was working on an involved implant case and requested that the laboratory's on-staff dentist—Dr. Mark Cherewka—devise detailed, step-by-step instructions for every clinical procedure. "He didn't really want to work on the case, so he basically wanted us to do it for him. We had to tell him 'no', even though we knew we risked losing the relationship," says Thayer. "We want our customers to rely on us—but not to take advantage of us. It's not ethical—or profitable."
He's abusive. This dentist is unreasonably rude and belligerent to your staff and if you allow it to go on, you're sending a message to your employees that they're not valued. "I had a client for about a month who crossed the line. He and his staff members were totally unreasonable, using foul language and hanging up on my employees," says Chris Morris, owner of ADL Dental Laboratory, Louisville, Kentucky. "I told them we could no longer work with them and that I would never treat my employees that way and didn't want anyone else to, either."
He won't play by the rules. Perhaps you've done some special favors for this customer in the past and now he expects those favors on a regular basis. Or maybe, no matter how much you try, you just can't seem to please him. Scott Dyer once had a client who constantly gave him unreasonable deadlines; Dyer once cut a vacation short to finish a case because the office manager made it clear that he would otherwise lose their business. The next time, he notified his clients a few months in advance that the laboratory would be closed for one week. However, that same client later sent a case, saying he needed it back in the middle of Dyer's vacation week.
"I called the office and had already made up my mind that I would not be flexible," says Dyer. "When the office manager asked, 'Well then, do we need to send it to another lab?' I said, 'Yes,' knowing it would be the end of our relationship. I returned all of his cases I had in the lab—unfinished—and explained that I needed to be in control of my schedule and that if they wouldn't work with me, I couldn't work with them."
He consistently pays late. He has one excuse after another about why he can't send you payment, or why he can only pay part of his balance. Late fees and collection notices don't faze him. "One of my clients became a bad payer three years into our relationship," says Brad Bond, owner, Bond Laboratories, Stuart, Florida. "It went on for three to four months and my efforts to remedy the situation were ignored. The last straw was the day he called to chat at length about an expensive family vacation he was about to take. Once I heard that, I was at my wit's end and knew I would stop working with him." The next day, Bond delivered a case himself and requested payment, but the doctor just gave him half of what he owed. When Bond calmly demanded the remaining amount, the dentist blew up in front of waiting patients. Only when he realized that Bond wasn't leaving did he write another check.
Can this relationship be saved?
As soon as possible into a conflict with a client, you should assess whether or not you want to try to resolve it and continue working with him. If you wait until things escalate, you risk losing your temper and later regretting how you handled it.
If it's an account of a considerable size, making the decision to "fire" him is all the more difficult. But look carefully at the price you and your staff are paying in terms of stress for keeping him. Then evaluate the amount of work he's sending and the time you're spending doing remakes or attending to his demands; you may find that he's not as profitable a client as he appears on the surface. If you're concerned about filling in the financial gap, consider what prospects you've been courting or ways to encourage your existing clients to send you more of their work. "You don't really want to fire an account that's a relatively large part of your sales volume without having a backup plan," says Bond. "But as business owners, we should always be ready for the doctor who's going to leave us or force us to leave him. It's part of having a growing business."
If you decide you'd like to salvage the relationship, you have to make a proactive effort. Contact the dentist, calmly explain the difficulties as you see them and ask for his input. "First approach it from the vantage point of 'it's nobody's fault, let's get together and see if we can work it out,'" says Thayer.
You may find that the customer is appreciative of the opportunity to clear the air, too--or at the least, that he'll gain a new perspective on the situation. For example, Bond was invited to lunch one day by a dentist who had been a friend and client for 20 years. "I thought it was purely social, but he spent an hour berating my quality control methods because we missed a speck of dust under the glaze," says Bond. "After that, he continued to complain about very miniscule things." Bond eventually had a heart-to-heart with the doctor, saying it seemed that the lab just couldn't satisfy him and perhaps there was a lab that would better suit his needs. "He said, 'Never say that to me again'; he didn't want to discontinue our relationship. But because of that conversation, he lightened up and he's still my client. It turns out he was having personal problems and didn't realize he was venting his frustrations at me."
Of course, not all clients are going to be amenable to a conversation that requires them to change or accept blame. So when you have to "fire" a dentist, calmly and professionally explain why you can't continue the relationship and let him know that after a specified date, you will no longer be able to accept his work. The key is to avoid hostility whenever possible. "Dentistry is a small community. If it comes up at his study club meeting, for example, you want him to say that you separated professionally," says Thayer.
There may even be situations in which you feel comfortable referring the client to another laboratory that might be a better match for his needs. "Not every dentist likes every technician's work and vice versa. When I've ended a relationship with a client, I've sometimes recommended another laboratory but I'll also call the lab and warn them about my experience," says Dyer. "Half the time, the other lab is perfectly happy with the client. Maybe their personalities just 'click' better or they started off on a better foot."
Laboratory owners say the upside to firing tough customers is that they're freed up to focus on more positive, mutually beneficial customer relationships. "When I said goodbye to a client who had worn me down with his demands, I felt so unburdened, it actually changed my life," says Dyer. " I had time for myself and my family and I enjoyed coming to the lab. I was even doing better work, and because of that, got more business through word of mouth. Within two months I had recovered the loss."