There’s an old adage about praising in public and criticizing in private. There’s a lot of debate about whether that’s a good idea all the time, but as a business owner, you should definitely apply it to how you discuss clients.
If you run a company, hopefully you have an inner circle of people to vent to and ask for advice about vexing clients. That kind of support makes a big difference in your success, and in your mental well-being. However, that circle of people shouldn’t include anyone you wouldn’t also tell about the time you pooped your pants on the golf course. It should be that small and trusted a group.
You should never criticize or complain about a client to anyone else. Not only does it seem tacky and unethical, but also more practically, it’s probably losing you business.
I once met the owners of a web development company at a community function, and learned they were doing a site for someone I also worked with on occasion. They complained for several minutes about the experience of working with that client just before they offered to meet with my partner and I to talk about our website needs.
I’m sure everything they said about the other client was true. But the mental note I made that day wasn’t about how great this webdev company was for dealing so deftly with a difficult client. It was, “Don’t ever work with these people or they’ll complain about us to random people they meet at public functions, too.”
Imagining how they might find fault with us, I continually put off meeting with them until I was far more prepared than is really required for a first consultation with a service provider. Although we did eventually sit down together, and they made a very reasonable offer and do great work, I just couldn’t get past picturing them complaining about me and my business, and I certainly wasn’t willing to pay for them to do it.
Naming and complaining about a client in public didn’t just lose them my business, though. It lost them all of my referrals, too. So don’t just avoid public criticism when you’re talking to a prospective client. Most people feel a degree of responsibility for the product and service provided by someone we refer a friend or colleague to, so put your best client relations foot forward with anyone who might be a potential source of a referral. (That, to be clear, is everyone.)
Talking up the great people you work for will make you a more desirable employer as well, and probably attract the kind of employees who don’t need to be told that they shouldn’t criticize clients in public. But tell them anyway. Their public complaints can do as much damage to a client’s reputation as yours, and are just as much a turn-off for potential new business. Give employees a safe space to vent about irksome clients, and ensure they know that outside of that circle, all client talk should be the highest praise.
After all, there’s also an inverse effect: when I hear you raving about a client — they’re great to work with, their product is terrific — I want to be your client, too. I picture you becoming a champion for me and my business, and that’s a pretty sweet added feature of whatever it is you’re selling.
Originally published October 8, 2015 in Our London.