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Sometimes you need to fire your client. God, that’s a hard one for me.

After 16 years at the helm of my company Corporate Rain International and over 700 clients, I’ve only given a client the pink slip four times (and once it was simply for their sake because they were really too busy and successful to use what my company was doing for them.) However, in terms of long-term branding and business reputation, it is a road that must be taken occasionally.

It was real hard to let a client go in the wake of 2008. With fear, uncertainty, and outright panic widespread it was particularly painful to give any client the heave-ho. But even in the worst of times there is a point of demarcation that must not be crossed.

In my case that line of demarcation is first and foremost discourtesy to or abuse of my staff. My employees and associates are ultimately my first priority. They are more important to me than my clients. This is certainly counter intuitive for many of my small business colleagues. For example, The Guardian Life Index: What Matters Most to America’s Small Business Owners recently reported that customers are priority numero uno for the vast majority of entrepreneurs. This is certainly understandable given the cost and time commitment that goes into generating new business. However, my feeling is that I can get new clients, but maintaining an ethical, culturally consistent employee base is ultimately more important to the long-term health of my company. In fact, the customer is not “always right” when a basic incongruity emerges in corporate culture between your client and your company. Then it is better to gently disengage.

Crain’s New York (October 29, 2010) reports that CEO Kevin Labick of digital consulting firm Empathy Lab recently fired a huge retail client. He recounts a litany of offenses that ranged from treating staff disrespectfully to late payments to nickel-and-diming small matters clearly stipulated in the contract. Such a nuisance is a time waster and a distraction from long-term goals and the branded reputability of any small firm. Also, to hark back to last week’s blog, you may be judged by your client’s values and reputation, as much as your own.

Ecclesiastica in the Apocrypha states, “Have regard for your name, since it will remain for you longer than a great store of gold.

Thank you, Ecclesiasticus.

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Never lie down with dogs. You may get fleas.

There is a crucial differentiation to be made for any entrepreneur in the company he keeps. It defines a businessman and his firm every bit as much as his business plan and marketing. I say that not as some sort of clinch-jawed, nose-in-the-air snob, but as a practical man of business. From the inception of any enterprise it is important to conceptualize the long-term defining nature and implications of commercial partnerships and associations. Those companies and people you service and associate with will have implications for your own and your company’s reputation.

Both in terms of process and execution, it is a time saver and efficiency producer to assume that the ur-values of your company and those you serve are the same. It is always an anxious thing to try to fit a square peg into a round hole. That creates a strain. Even if it is a subconscious tension, a simple adumbration of uneasiness, conflicting or incongruent corporate value systems will impinge on the focused energy needed for collegial business success.

The corollary to this, obviously, is, as an entrepreneur, it is important to know who you are personally and what your company’s core value is. Without self-knowledge how is one to even know what constitutes a congruent client? A corporate culture is influenced by the cultures of those whom you choose to serve, as well as by your internal dynamics.

Ray L. Hunt, Dallas oil billionaire, former head of the Dallas Fed, and philanthropist, gave a very fine speech to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce a couple of weeks ago. In his speech he outlines 5 Principals of Business Excellence, which are well worth reporting on another time. But he concludes with this observation–“Quality attracts quality.

Clients and employee associates are drawn to a tone, an ethos, an aura. For long-term success you need to define, establish, and hold dear a set of core beliefs that permeate your organization. “If you build it, he will come.” to quote Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams. If you build it right and present it effectively you will create long-term clients among kindred spirits. And you will not attract those you should not align with. Which is appropriate, apt, and an important business value.

Thank you, Ray L. Hunt.

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Lida Askew with daughter Kathy

My mother, Lida Askew, died yesterday of Parkinson’s Disease. She was 83. My four sisters and I took turns holding her desiccated body and stroking her waxen features as she slowly shut down. The end was a gentle, hospice assisted descent into the sweet arms of…whatever comes next.

My mother was a good old girl who lived a full, useful life and she died without regret. She enjoyed her life to the end.  She enjoyed herself even while confined to a wheelchair and shaking with Parkinson’s. But, particularly interestingly, hers was a most conscious and generous death.

My mother was very decidedly not an entrepreneur. In fact, I think she looked a bit askance at my late in life embrace of capitalism. But she was a tremendous long-term planner, and, as such, an inspiration to me in thinking about succession in my own life and in the life of my company. She foresaw and directed every aspect of her own end. This included a very rationated, specific splitting and dispensation of her estate to prevent family friction, as well as detailed instructions on how she wished to die–that is, in her own bed and not in the hospital. She was very precise about pulling plugs and not extending her life artificially. (My sister Kathy has chronicled this process in her excellent blog www.thenewelder.com.)

I want to have the forethought to create an equal grace around the succession and inheritance issues of my firm Corporate Rain International. I don’t know much about those issues yet, but I want to be just as smoothly efficacious and wise in thinking about my employees, my clients, my family, and myself when things end. In her modest way, my mother created a splendid suggestive road map.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how I deal with very bad days. Harking back to that posting, I remember being depressed and distraught one day years ago and turning to my mother for solace and advice. (I think it was about a failed love affair). She was appropriately sympathetic, of course. That’s a mother’s job. Then she said, “But you know, Timothy, there’s little I can say that will cheer you up.  There’s only one thing I know to do on really bleak, dark days. The only thing I know to do on such hopeless days is spend that time cleaning my toilets.”

Thank you, my dear mother.  Goodbye.

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