Dealing with Problematic Clients
I remember the story told me once by a groomer working at a local boarding facility. The staff at the boarding facility would write the letters “PITA” on a client’s boarding card when the client was problematic – meaning “pain in the ass.” The system worked well to identify difficult clients so staff members at the boarding facility knew better how to handle them upon checkin and checkout. However, one day a staff number forgot to remove the client card boldly marked with “PITA” in bright red letters prior to the client picking up their pet. You can imagine what ensued afterward when the client saw the notation made on the card!
While this is an unfortunate incident, one that should never be repeated by any groomer or boarding facility staff member, it is even more unfortunate that we even have to deal with problematic clients to begin with. So how do we handle this type of client? How do we get rid of them when they cause more problems than their patronage is worth?
I believe the best way to begin preparing for and dealing with problematic clients is to first have in place solid policies that protect the business. Policies that protect the business will range from what happens when a client is late for drop off or pick up to penalties that will be paid for bounced checks, for severely matted pets, or for no-shows and late cancellations. It is important to write these policies down and have them clearly posted for clients in appropriate places such as on the business website, on a client contract or release form, and even at the check-in counter or some other similar location. The point is to be sure clients are aware of what the business policies are and what penalties will be incurred if the policies are violated.
It is also important that any employees in the business be aware of the policies and the procedures for handling each scenario. It is much easier to enforce policies when they are clearly written and posted for all to see and understand. This removes confusion brought on by ignorance or forgetfulness for all parties involved. I know I forget things on a regular basis, especially as I grow older. However, if things are written down, I can always go back and reference the details of what is expected of my clients and what happens if these expectations are not met. As a business owner, I always have the prerogative to be gracious in any given situation and forego the penalties that would normally be placed on a client that is late or misses appointments or is neglectful of their pet.
One of the standard policies in my grooming salon has always been that the groomer checking in a particular cat for any given appointment will be the one to decide on an appropriate groom for that individual cat. If the groomer is not yet properly trained to make these decisions they would not be the one checking in the cat. In addition we will never agree to a groom choice on a cat that we believe is unsafe for the cat or beyond the scope of our abilities. Likewise, we will not jeopardize the quality of the groom by agreeing to something that we believe is beyond what the cat can tolerate and hence may end up as an incomplete groom. This means regardless of what the client may request or desire, ultimately the decision comes down to the groomer’s choice as to what is best for any given cat.
Recently we had the opportunity to put this policy to the test when a new client entered our salon and insisted upon a lion cut for her elderly, fragile, aggressive, never-before-been-groomed cat. Lynn was checking in the new client and, upon assessing the cat, explained to the client why this was not an appropriate choice and why we would not perform this groom. Lynn clearly offered alternative solutions that would meet the client’s needs and provide safety for this cat’s first groom. Despite the explanations and reasons given, the client was insistent upon receiving a lion cut and began to raise her voice at Lynn, arguing loudly with her in the lobby. At that point I stepped in and gave the client two choices: A) accept what Lynn was offering her as an appropriate groom for her cat, or B) collect her kitty and leave our facility. We were done arguing over the matter.
At that point, faced with the choices, the new client opted to have her cat groomed and followed Lynn’s instructions without further comment. Furthermore, upon return to pick up her cat, the client profusely apologized to Lynn and later sent an email to me privately apologizing for her irrational and unprofessional behavior. I truly believe this client could have turned into a problematic one had we not stood our ground and enforced the policies put in place to ultimately protect the business. The client had a choice to make. She chose to respect the policies, play by the rules, and as a result, benefit from our grooming services in the future. She could have chosen to find another groomer. If this client was going to continue to be problematic, we would not want her patronage anyway!
Another incident shortly after that one forced us to take a look at another one of our policies: what happens when a client is late for pick up, arriving past closing time? Even if only by a few minutes. In this particular scenario, a longtime client fully aware of our closing time, was unreachable by the provided phone numbers at the time of closing. We then put her cat up for boarding for the night as per our client contract policy which each client signs upon initial visit. Later that evening, we received an angry email from this particular client suggesting that we were holding her cat hostage. She threatened to call the police to break down our door and get her cat for her. I firmly reminded my client via email of the policy that has always been in place regarding cats left beyond the time of closing. I informed her again of the overnight boarding fee and the procedure for collecting her cat once we were again open for business. When the client returned to get her cat during our normal business hours. She paid the fee and was apologetic for her behavior. She promised never to be late again. If she is, she knows the procedure and the fee.
Remember, a policy can always be tweaked. If things aren’t working out as intended, make a few adjustments.
So do you have written reasonable policies in place to protect your business? If you are the owner, are your employees aware of these policies and what to do to enforce them? Should they attempt to handle these types of situations on their own or do they call you in to deal with the big issues? If you are an employee, are you aware of the business policies and what you should do when difficult clients present a threat to the business in one way or another?
To begin formulating policies, write down all of the things that cause disruption in the day-to-day workings of the business and the things that cause frustration.
Late arrivals, whether for pick-up or drop-off, are a common source of frustration. What does “late” mean? Is it 10 minutes past the appointment time or 30 minutes? Or something in-between? At what point does it begin to set the entire schedule back if a client is late for drop-off? This is the point whereby a policy needs to be in place that says the animal will then not be accepted that day for grooming. The appointment is considered a “no-show” and a new appointment must be scheduled in the future.
What constitutes a late pick-up? Is it past closing time or at the time a groom is completed? Clearly state such as well as what the penalty is for being late. In my salon, “late” has always meant past our mid-afternoon closing time. The cat is boarded for the night and a fee is charged per night with the cat being available for pick up at the time of opening again. I have left the building before, walked to my car and driven away while a client was in her car in the parking lot, talking on the phone. She had to return the next morning and pay the overnight fee in order to collect her kitty. She was never late for pick-up ever again. It was hard to do that. When walking to my car and driving away I purposely did not look in my client’s direction. Despite being hard, it was the best thing to do in the long run. It made a huge difference for my business when dealing with chronically late clients. It put an end to them robbing me of my life after work or robbing from my business financially when I had to pay an employee to stay late.
What happens if a client misses an appointment without notification? How many days’ notification do they need to provide? 48 hours? 72 hours? A week? How many no-show appointments can they accumulate before they are put on a prepayment plan or fired altogether? These are questions every grooming business owner should consider and have a plan in place to implement policies. Remember this: there is nothing wrong with requiring pre-payments for appointments. Many service-oriented businesses do it. Many businesses also charge a client for missed appointments. Do not be afraid to create a missed appointment policy and enforce it! You will be happy that you did!
What happens if a client writes a bad check? The bank will certainly charge you a fee for this. And what about the trouble and time it takes to obtain collection of the nonpayment? The client should have to pay these fees. I have fired clients for this very thing. I’m too busy to be a collection service. I hate that type of thing, therefore, I do what I can to eliminate future occurrences of becoming a debt collector. If a client makes a mistake in the balancing of their checkbook and inadvertently writes a bad check, that is one thing. I know it’s a mistake when the client contacts me before I have ever been alerted by my bank that the check was no good. If, however, I receive notice from my bank some 2-3 weeks later and have trouble getting in touch with the client, much less getting the money owed, then the client is no longer my client. I simply have no tolerance for that type of irresponsible behavior. That is my “line in the sand.” Everyone has that aggravation point. What is yours? What are you doing to avoid the aggravation point? If you continue to find yourself frustrated by these things, it truly is your own fault for not minimizing it as much as possible. A simple policy is just the thing!
Whatever the case may be, the ultimate goal when developing policies is to determine what it is worth to deal with a problematic client and their behavior. Put fees in place to compensate for the difficulties these PITA clients cause and make the fees high enough to have a real impact. For instance, at a daycare facility for children, it is not uncommon for there to be a very stiff late fee per minute that a child is not picked up past closing time. If a mom, out having coffee with a friend, sees that she’s a few minutes late to pick up her child and there is no late fee or a very minimal one, she is more inclined to take her time having coffee with her friend. After all she’s getting free or very cheap babysitting services. It is worth it, in this case, for her to stay and enjoy the coffee date. However, if the daycare business has implemented a very stiff penalty of, let’s say, $10 per minutes that the mother is late, she may think twice before sitting at that table at the coffee shop, chatting away with her friend. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes…..it adds up to a pretty stiff price and makes her think twice!
As groomers, we should also have stiff penalties for bad behavior by clients. Decide what they are, write them down, post them on your website and anywhere else that a client would need to see such policies. And then, the hard part… enforce the policies and charge the fees. Don’t be afraid to do this. The policies are there, after all, to protect your business. Do not loose sight of this!
For more on this topic watch the Business Policies and Enforcement webinar in the MEMBER BENEFITS online course offered by the NCGI. Go back and listen to the webinar periodically to refresh your memory and give you an added boost of confidence to stick to the policies you have created.
The big picture: protect the business. Don’t let the PITA client destroy your work.