Morgan (Host): Hey everyone! Welcome to the latest episode of ‘Client Horror Stories’. I’m excited today to have the first attorney on the show. I’ve interviewed people from different professions, but not a lawyer before. We may have a different perspective on ‘Client Horror Stories’ today. Welcome to the show, Rachel Brenke! Did I pronounce your name right?
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): I almost always cringe when people leave knowing that I’m an attorney. I can hear the laptops and apps closing because nobody wants to listen to a lawyer, but I guarantee I’m a little more relatable than most, in my opinion. Prior to becoming a lawyer, I am also a small business owner. Being a mother of five, I made an effort to keep things real.
Morgan (Host): Mom of five?
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): I think the same thing every day. I have that look when they gather around the island, and they’re like, feed me, and I’m like, where did you guys come from?
Morgan (Host): I know this will be a good episode because you’re already funny 30 seconds in.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Well, hopefully! I feel the pressure now that you are calling me both funny and a lawyer.
Morgan (Host): Funny and a lawyer! That can be your marketing campaign.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): I appreciate it!
Morgan (Host): Everyone’s scared of lawyers, but you are the funny one.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): The thing that is so funny is that as an attorney, you would think I would have so many horror stories. But as we prepared for this, it was very challenging. It was a little difficult for me to come up with my own client horror stories. I learned a lot from going through my own horror story in life, but it was funny because even today, I was telling my husband that I do not have my own client horror story. There are little things but nothing super dramatic. Therefore, what we’re going to talk about today is kind of reinforced by that.
Morgan (Host): We’ll get to the meat of the matter shortly, I guess. However, you made a valid argument and proceeded. Oh, and by the way, individuals typically seek lawyers when they are in a crisis. You just put out other people’s flames as a part of your employment. As a result, it’s much simpler for you to pick up the lessons very quickly because you’re exposed to all the client’s horror stories right away.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): My secret is that I’m probably an attorney, but it’s almost like the cobbler’s children have no shoes. My legal stuff usually comes last because I don’t want to spend time cleaning up messes, as a business owner. I own a law firm, and I own other businesses as well. I’ve had that perspective for so long that I want to be able to spend the time on the things that I want to do. As a lawyer, I am a completely different person. I try to prevent stuff that causes more time, money, and energy. In addition to cleaning up your mess, I will make sure you get your stuff into order for the future, so you won’t have messes.
We can’t always escape things, which is sort of the concept of this program; things happen in life, and people are present. But I’m one of those people who, after hearing these horror stories, wants to know how to prevent them, which is why I appreciate this podcast you’re producing. However, time and money are big things. And in our story, you’ll hear. I am extremely conscious of how finite that is. That is why I emphasize to myself as well as to my clients that we don’t want to waste time on things. It is not fun at all.
Morgan (Host): Yeah, that the shoemaker’s children going shoeless is an important lesson to keep in mind. Even while I pay myself, I won’t even do it for myself, so it nearly seems contradictory. But I fear that many will misunderstand what I’m saying because, as a cobbler, you just have an instinctive knowledge of how to manage risk and what to say about it when you’re learning. So that somebody, for example, who has no legal training can handle it naturally.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Yeah! I hate dealing with legal stuff, so I think about my law firm and my staff who can help me. But I remember when I was all by myself, I struggled to prevent these client horror stories.
Morgan (Host): On that point, I’ll make one other side observation everyone might find interesting. Then we’ll jump into today’s story. How I will make reconcile with the shoemakers Children go without shoes is when I hire specialists in any field, notably lawyers, so many professionals prefer to present options while delivering professional advice. You could do this, but there are risks involved. You could communicate the risks and let the other person work through them on their own. That advice style is so common. And I virtually always ask experts, “If you were in my position, which of the options would you choose?” And especially with doctors, it’s amazing how they’ll recommend surgery and other amazing things while using an entirely different approach for themselves.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): I loved what you said! Because it solidified what I’ve been doing. Just like that, when clients ask what I would do to solve their problem, I give them the options since I’m legally required to, but at the end of the day, they ask: what would you do? What do you think? And they almost blindly trust me because they know my whole perspective of saving time, money, and energy and putting it towards things you want to put it into.
Morgan (Host): So with all this buildup and pressure, now the story has to be amazing. No pressure at all! The stories federal just asked you for some tacos. Right?
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): We will train legal advice for Taco every day all day.
Morgan (Host): And with no pressure at all, Let’s dive into your story.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Yeah, I mean, I guess we can go right in. The beginning of my client’s horror story had nothing to do with clients necessarily, but it could have had a disastrous effect on them. And it could have led to more horror stories. This does not mean that everything went smoothly. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I have rose-colored glasses. I don’t jump out of bed in the morning every day with birds singing and dancing like in Disney movies. At the end of the day, it’s still something that I have to remind myself of.
And so, even though we just sort of covered the entire introduction of how I approach clients in my businesses, it’s still like a muscle that I need to exercise on a regular basis. We are disclosing all of this as an aside. Now I compete with Team USA in triathlon. And I never imagined having that capacity. So I simply made the same comparison. I can’t just go out and run a marathon, I’m not an Ironman. I constantly have to work on it. And I believe that we need to prevent client issues and horror stories from happening. There are simple things we need to exercise every day. And so, my horror story started when I was 20 and was diagnosed with cancer.
Morgan (Host): At 20?
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Honestly, I didn’t believe it at that time too. I’m not even sure I shared this publicly before. In 2005, a lump was found in my throat. And I was pregnant at the time. The doctors kept saying, “It’s not cancerous. You don’t fit into the age group.” I felt like I was in a purgatory age group between being a child and becoming an elderly person. And it was meant for more geriatric individuals. And they kept telling me to not worry about it. And I kind of convinced myself that it was not a big deal. Despite the fact, we were pregnant with our first at the time. He’s now 17, and a whole foot taller than me. Around him, I have to look up at him. Being our first pregnancy and having cancer, we didn’t know about the symptoms, such as excessive weight gain, like 60 pounds in three months. Was that just my body going through pregnancy, or was it cancer? It was almost endorsed by the doctors who said, “Well, your age has nothing to do with it.” I thought I was invincible and that it couldn’t happen to me. So fast forward about two years, it was still in my body, getting bigger in my neck. So, I ended up choosing surgery.
Morgan (Host): So at that time, you had given birth and were no longer pregnant?
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Yeah, I was no longer pregnant. At that time, it was the height of the Iraq war, so my husband was deployed to Iraq. I had the oldest in 2005, and my husband was still deployed. But my parents were very supportive and helped me from a long distance as much as they could, but yes, I overlooked it. I really thought that it wouldn’t happen to me. It is also something I hear from my clients all the time because they also believe that all those legal issues would never happen to them. I’m not downplaying cancer and equating it with something less serious. However, if I had taken it a bit more seriously, it probably would have not been such a prolonged recovery process and treatment. So that’s a lesson I learned there.
In addition, about two years after I discovered the lump and underwent multiple surgeries, doctors were still saying that the lump did not appear to be cancerous despite the surgeries. And then they sent it off to pathology. And one of the other things that I learned in this process was when I got diagnosed, it wasn’t like you see on the TV, where they call you in, sit you down, push the boxes across the counter, and hold your hand. I didn’t get any of that. Maybe because it was military medicine but something happened. And I had a wonderful care team, so don’t get me wrong. There was just some communication error in the process because, after pathology reports, I never got a call telling me I’m cancerous and needed treatment. And what I was about to face. In the meantime, I got something like a sterile phone call, and I wish I knew her name because I distinctly remember where I was sitting when she called, and I’ll jump to the client’s horror story after this.
I recall sitting on the floor with my son, who was just two years old, and thinking, I can still feel the carpet, I can still smell the smells, I can still feel everything! I remember her saying we need to schedule to remove your malignant tumor, but I went, “Do what?” This was before iPhone, so it was like a crotchety flip phone that probably wasn’t as durable as iPhones are now, but I remember her saying scheduled. And she goes, “Oh, dear”. And I was like, “Oh, dear”. Anyways, it wasn’t her fault. God scheduled this and did all the treatments.
But I took note of that lesson, particularly since I work in an area where there is frequently terrible news, etc. I don’t have a lot of sparkle or glitter. Let’s skip the filler and get to the point type of person. However, that is also a lesson I’ve learned from this cancer treatment: if you’re breaking bad news to someone, want to avoid them being unhappy, or want to help reduce their anxiety, you can’t just say, “Oh, well, you’re being sued for $25,000,” and move on. The lesson I learned was more like a white glove hand-holding approach with clients. I still have to remind myself that, even today, because it’s so easy to get sucked into what you’re doing, no matter what industry you’re in, and try to cut to the chase, especially when you’re trying to reduce the amount of time you spend doing certain things. But, yeah, cancer started everything.
Morgan (Host): Wow, this is a powerful story! It’s interesting! I’m Jewish. So I can make fun of the Jewish conspiracy theories. But if a non-Jew says something about Jewish Illuminati, anti-Semite evil, or Masons running the world, it would hit differently. But, you have been through cancer, you can talk about it, and create these metaphors in any way you can.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): No, I agree! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not downplaying cancer. Right, my surgery was fairly straightforward, but it took them twice to cut my neck and to take stuff out, and then I had all sorts of radiation and treatments. So I may have a completely different perspective. But I’ve talked to other cancer survivors. I’m in a book, “1 Habit to Beat Cancer”. As I shared at the beginning, I’ve spoken to some of those other individuals and am sharing this with those who are listening. Most of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lives, and hopefully, we’ve learned from it, taken the good from it, and killed a lot of the bad, but my point is many cancer survivors have had similar experiences. We need to work on having rose-colored glasses all the time, but also glean little lessons that we can use to make life better for others.
Morgan (Host): I think this is a powerful discussion in light of our stories since I think just from your story you can draw multiple lessons of client management. As you ended with this, I just think it’s worth repeating, which is, bad news or potentially bad news needs to be delivered with care. If you work with a lot of people, it’s hard to realize sometimes. I work more with software developers, who tend to be more on the artistic spectrum, for them, it is hard to realize, as how matter of fact, things turn out, so a conflict can always arise anywhere.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Even though it looks like they don’t care, they do. I get what you mean. Lawyers can be that way too.
Morgan (Host): Definitely! So one general piece of advice is when you deliver bad news, I would recommend being more caring. My framing of this lesson would be that you should take care of language, emotions, and time in a nice way, so that would be my takeaway. But also from the story that you shared, there are a couple of other lessons that I think we can get. One is you glossed over the point at the beginning, which I think was important. When you were 20, you were diagnosed but still thought of yourself as invincible. And, it’s funny how many client horror stories happen because people, even after seeing signs, take on projects, thinking it won’t happen to them. It’s like, oh, there’s a 1% chance that this little thing will happen, so I’m just not going to worry about it, and I think one of the lessons is that one percent chance can become huge.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): I’m so glad you brought that up. As an attorney, I try to emphasize that I’m not trying to excuse myself, I’m trying to avoid having to go through the pain. Throughout this process, as I have not shared it yet, we will return to your points. However, on that note, it is also about communication with clients. It’s like having a legal arrangement, having contracts, and it’s like setting expectations, but there was another point when I had to be in isolation because of radiation after surgery. So I couldn’t be around my son, the army didn’t let my husband come home. So thankfully, my mom was able to fly to Texas and be with me. I had to spend a couple of days in quarantine because I was radioactive. I didn’t turn into Spider-Man or anything like that, but I was in quarantine. But I remember getting into the elevator to leave. And one of my clients was in the elevator. And luckily, they didn’t recognize me as I was a hot mess after three days of being quarantined, and I was swollen because of constant IVs. They were trying to flush the radiation out of my body through perspiring and urination. And so my client didn’t recognize me.
But I remember getting an email from them saying they haven’t heard from me. I’m not referring to sharing your traumatic experiences with your clients or your customers. I remind you again, Wifi or iPhones were not a thing back then. I did not have constant access to e-mail a client even when in quarantine because Wifi wasn’t a thing back then. I regret not informing my clients, “Hey, I would be out of pocket for a couple of days.” Because at the time, I didn’t have a team, and I didn’t have someone managing my email. I was in my first few years of entrepreneurship, I didn’t have the money and the ability to have a team. So, the client ended up having almost a decreased trust in me simply because they hadn’t heard from me. There should have been some sort of balance.
We cannot share every breathing moment with the clients. One must have boundaries. Nevertheless, I agree with your point regarding my thinking that I was invincible. I allowed that mentality to override the fact. And I should have told clients up front that I would be out of pocket for three or four days and would get your emails when I return. I didn’t even have an auto responder up saying this sort of thing. And even then, I wouldn’t suggest a reactive type of approach. It needed to be proactive in direct communication. And so I didn’t have a major issue with that client but I felt their confidence in me waning a bit when I could have prevented that.
Morgan (Host): It was a great example! With all the episodes so far in the podcast, it is great advice that no one has mentioned so far.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Oh, I got a reward!
Morgan (Host): Sometimes, bits of advice can be too repetitive. But that is good advice that if you’re going to be out of pocket, just tell everyone. There is a mindset among a lot of professionals, especially younger professionals, that if anything isn’t super positive, you don’t want to tell the client. And even if I’ll be away for a week, that’s fine, you’re human. So it’s not bad news at all. But so many people are scared to say, “Hey, I’m going to be offline.” In addition, over the last few years, the COVID pandemic has been devastating in many ways. But one of the good things is I’ve noticed that these last few years, people have become more open about sharing, like, “I’m going to be offline. I’m feeling safe.” So luckily, that norm is adjusting.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): I understand that not everything can be predicted. For instance, when I got COVID two months ago, I knew immediately I wasn’t feeling well. As soon as I had an inkling, and I don’t say that to lay your whole business bare, I think this is something that a lot of people don’t talk about. And if you put your consumer hat on, you’ll see how often your confidence and your buyers’ confidence erode gradually. And so oftentimes, client horror stories don’t happen because of one major issue. In reality, erosion is constant because of that moderate issue, or some other small issues. And communication is the key.
You just hit it on the head, especially with a pandemic, the silver lining that has come out from it. I feel like clients especially are a lot more accepting now with flexible work styles and boundaries of work hours. Now it is a little more balanced. But I think the big thing, as business owners, it’s on us to set those expectations and boundaries. We haven’t discussed this yet, but if you don’t communicate as a business owner, I don’t believe that you should feel resentful of your client. For example, if you don’t inform people that, say, a 48-hour turnaround is expected for whatever it is, they may not be prepared. You can’t have this mentality of “I mean, you can do whatever you want” when your clients email you within a day of paying you to ask where the product or the services are.
However, I don’t believe you should be forced to serve your attitude of thinking, Oh my God, why is that client already emailing me? I see this a lot with clients who wind up in client horror stories because I’m the doctor who helps to heal the client’s horror stories. And what happens is that if you set the expectations and treat them almost like a snowball, you’re accumulating all these tiny issues into one big problem because you didn’t tell the client, who doesn’t know any different. So perhaps they’re simply eager for you to give that contract, logo, or whatever you’re offering. They inquire about it, and you respond with anger, thinking, “Oh my God, why are they expecting this of me?” They will then feel your resentment, and you can see how client horror stories are created. The end.
Morgan (Host): This is the second episode of the series and many of the episodes focus on explaining tiny things that occurred in this tiny detail. However, I believe that this was the first time we’ve taken the time to observe that it’s rarely a big event. But much like a collection of life modeling moments, I believe that identifying these incredibly minute details is an important aspect of professional development. It is also what the series aims to accomplish. The first time you deal with someone, pay attention because they frequently only want one small contract and then forget to…
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Red flag! It is a Red Flag in my office.
Morgan (Host): Exactly! In the beginning, or when you need money, you think, oh, I’ll be able to go on for 10 years, but eventually it’s like, wait a minute, that’s a Red Flag.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): This is the kind of partnership that becomes the worst, which is funny because I work with businesses that get together friends and form partnerships. I just had some lovely clients last week who have been like sisters for years and were also bringing in another friend whom they knew for 40 years. As for me, I don’t care. I mean, I love and care, but on the legal side, you know what will happen because we’ve seen it happen before. In other words, I know that lawyers have a reputation for looking for the worst, but that’s what makes us good at what we do. It is important for business owners to understand this as well, so they don’t have horror stories about what could happen here, and to take measures to prevent it from happening. But the reality is that you aren’t going to be able to prevent everything, as you just said. And it’s huge.
As for this podcast, and listening to my podcasts, you may think you would be able to prevent everything. But, as you just said, maturity happens through exercise and business. You should commit to learning this stuff, listen to these episodes, but don’t think: “Oh, I’ve finished all of the episodes, I’m good to go.”
It’s just my practice. Each time we work with a client or go through a process, we look back and see what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes it’s difficult when things are super busy, and you’re so focused on trying to fulfill the needs of your clients, your family, and yourself. However, if you end up in a horror story that escalates into a legal situation, you would be kicking yourself for not taking the time, whether it was sending out an email blast, checking the KPIs, or working on a project with a client from start to finish. You need to do and schedule the evaluation of those things if you haven’t already done them. It goes back to the exercise metaphor.
I hope my coach isn’t watching this, I am the worst at this. I know that if I warm up and stretch before I run and stretch after, I would prevent injuries. But what do I do? I’m in between podcasts. I had to get the kids later. So I skipped it. As a result, I end up getting injured, which prolongs my progress. I’m sure my coach will text me and say, you do that often. In other words, do what I say, not what I do, but never stop evaluating because you can listen to this stuff all day. And I think it’s wonderful. By looking at the inner workings of what you are doing, you’ll grow as a business owner. You have to be honest with yourself, too. I think that’s also really difficult to do.
Morgan (Host): Intelligence agencies have a concept, an AR, or an After Action Review. And, after any little thing happens, just ask yourself in a formal sense, these five questions. Did you expect this to happen? What happened? How come you didn’t meet your expectations? What are you going to do differently next time? And I’ve adopted the AR approach after every little sprint. It’s been amazing for me since I started doing that a few years ago how many lessons I learned out of things that I live and see with people on my team.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Yeah. As someone who has been in business for almost 20 years like I am, even yesterday as we were reviewing historical data and reports, I was in my office thinking, Oh my gosh, I wouldn’t have thought that. You want to listen to your intuition to a point, but you can’t ignore the data. So, it is easy to listen to clients on the client horror stories. As an example, let’s take the case of the client who was in the elevator with me, didn’t recognize me after the elevator ride, then sent me an email. Maybe, he was just being nice. On the surface, this email of “Hey, just checking in, haven’t heard from you” seemed very benign, but I paused and wondered, “Did I set up expectations correctly? Did I set the wrong expectation? Could I have prevented this by communication? And how do I heal it now?” And then, going back to something you said earlier, you know, being in a pandemic, people are a lot more transparent. I’m not saying that if you have cancer, go out and tell the world. For a long time, I didn’t share about it. I wasn’t ashamed, but I wasn’t sure how it could fit into my story to help people.
And now we’re here talking about it. But so if you have a traumatic event, you don’t have to share specifics. You have to figure out a way to set the boundary of, “Hey, I’m going to be out of pocket.” You don’t have to justify it. And I do think that we’re getting better. I’m so glad about that as a society because of the work from home and all this stuff. For the last few years, I think we are getting better at just accepting. Possibly, it’s good. You don’t need to be aware of the specifics. They might be taking time off or struggling with mental health issues and even if you feel forced to stop yourself if you’re uncomfortable sharing for whatever reason, don’t. I think my point is to share what you’re comfortable with. But don’t feel you have to share all the gruesome details to avoid issues. You can say enough without saying everything to accomplish what you’re trying to avoid the client horror stories stuff.
Morgan (Host): That is excellent advice. Do you have any other thoughts? I think you alluded to saying that you wanted to get to something more general or another aspect of the story because we want to find the tension, unintended unattended!
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): I think lived most of it. And I think the common theme here is prevention as much as possible, and learning from lessons to be able to prevent disasters. No, I think we hit almost everything. Luckily for me, in my journey of this, I was able to reconcile with the client. I didn’t tell them that I had cancer. I just said I’m sorry. I had medical issues. I was out of pocket. What can I do now for you? I think it also depends on what kind of industry you’re in and how intimate you are with your clients. Most of my clients end up becoming friends, or we’re in similar circles, so they know, and I’m pretty open about most things in my life anyway. As much as I love the idea of personal branding, and I love the connection, if you’re someone who’s in an industry where you’re selling widgets off a shelf or a product, but you aren’t your customers’ sole face, and they don’t necessarily need you, maybe now is the time to forward plan.
Okay, I guess something will happen. If something goes wrong, there could be a pandemic, a COVID outbreak, a cancer diagnosis, a car accident, or perhaps you’re just feeling overworked and need a break. I would encourage you to do this since this is another area where I frequently have people come to me feeling burned out. Outside of law, I also do company strategy counseling. And there are a few things. Okay, are you burnt out, and if so, why? And we’ll proceed with the procedure as we just discussed. The problem was often burnout, which caused client problems, which caused more burnout, sort of reverse engineering.
And we talked about this a little bit earlier. However, it’s simple for a business owner to blame the customer, claiming that they are simply entitled and want a quick response. Some customers do that now. However, as long as you create the expectation, you are freed of all liability there. All of that is on them. That cannot be changed, particularly in this day and age when people demand immediate access to everything. However, pinpointing the problem’s source and doing reverse engineering are truly the key objectives. And I am aware that it will be challenging. It’s time to genuinely halt your business if you’re sitting here listening and thinking, “Oh my god, I’m having all these client horror stories, all these things happening on.” Finish out those clients, and at least bring someone in to come to help you. So that you may take the time we discussed and determine—much like a triage situation—where the bleeding is coming from. Where are you leaking from? Because even if it’s only 1% of what you’re doing, it will add up there.
This is an example from the excellent book, “Atomic Habits”. Even in the first chapter, the author discusses how moving the needle daily only requires 1% of effort because it builds up over time. When you want to avoid problems, just work on the 1% every day, but in the inverse, every day you don’t work on it, this 1% will compound to the negative that can end up into bigger issues.
We’ve already touched on this a little bit, but one of the final things I’ll mention is how frequently clients would remark that they never imagined. Clients would say I never imagined I’d have these issues. They would sob on the phone, and I still clearly remember the single mother who was recently gone through a terrible divorce. She didn’t have much money, and one of her clients was trying to sue her. And I just recall her sobbing as she expressed her gratitude for my ability to assist her, not just in resolving her legal concerns, but also in preventing a repeat of this experience. And I found myself returning to the idea of invincibility.
We are not unbeatable. We are all limited by the number of days and years we have. I mean, I could pass away tomorrow; we just never know. I have a lot of legal counsel to offer, speeches to make, and tacos to eat. As cliché as it sounds, I can’t even impress you if any part of the story or what we’ve discussed has resonated with you. I have to remind myself of this every day, as I don’t have rose-colored glasses on, but we have a finite amount of time, and that is why we try to avoid as many issues as possible when working with my clients so that we can live the life we want. Because if you think of it as a pie, you have all the business-related tasks to complete, as well as all the personal tasks you want to complete. Which task do you think will be sacrificed when you have a client horror story to resolve? You are unable to take time off from client work since you require it to keep everything running. As a result, the life portion of the pie begins to shrink to create a place for fixing the problems.
Therefore, I’m merely urging you folks to listen to these scary tales. And I am aware that I did not give any of mine. I’ve got one actually. I would not say a full horror story. But can I share it? Do we have time?
Morgan (Host): I’m having fun, so yes! Another way in which this conversation is unique is that most people I interview have this human necessity called breathing, and I can comment because of this. I’m not going to press back on the back button on the web browser about six times before your mini-story wraps up. I want to comment on something you said that was a really useful point. Which again I don’t think anyone has made before. So that’s why I like it. On the back, it’s easy to blame a client. I think especially client horror stories, it’s almost by the title about the bad things that the client did. And you made such a good point where that’s the easy way out. And the way you mature as a professional is by precisely not doing that but instead trying to internalize the lessons.
One process that I use on my team is the AR, that’s a formal way to learn lessons but on a personal level, Whenever I have a relationship, whether it is a client relationship, a non-work relationship, a human relationship, a relationship, I take it as an article of faith and belief. So it’s just like a belief I have that doesn’t necessarily correspond to reality, but it’s just what I choose to believe that every single breakdown or problem is 50% their fault and 50% my fault. In reality, maybe it was 90% my fault, and only 2% their fault, it doesn’t matter. But because I choose to believe it was 50% my fault. As a result, I always think, okay, well, I can always improve until I am godlike until I am perfect. In light of this, even though the client overstated. I should have followed up on that and gotten this in writing. I’ll be more proactive the next time. And over the years, does it really make a difference if I just keep saying things like, “No matter how horrible they are, what could I have done even better?”
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): One step further, I’m going to send this episode to my team. I have amazing teams in all my businesses. I’ve worked hard to qualify. I’m not the best manager or leader, and I share that on a lot of podcasts. That’s one of my weaknesses that I’m learning. Note that this isn’t even about writing horror stories for clients or even horror stories with your colleagues. What I love about the CliftonStrengths assessment is that it reveals your superpowers as well as your blind spots. It is possible to have a negative impact on your team or your clients, so the blind spot might be that I can provide and come up with 15 intricate legal solutions, but the client might be overwhelmed by them, so I have to narrow it down.
But what you just said, and I think it’s really interesting if you’re a leader managing someone, even if it’s just one person, maybe there’s a customer service person, who is probably the most important in the company, or if you’re the CEO, is that when we have a client issue that arises, whether it’s at like client intake with my customer service or client relations people, I as a leader much prefer when they come to me. Clients can be clients, but if you approach me with a team member’s mindset, well, then the clients are doing A, B, C, and D. However, you provide no mention of how or why you believe you could have made it better or contributed a solution to fix it. Clients can be clients but if you come to me with almost as an attitude as the team member, well the clients doing A, B, C, and D. But you don’t say anything about why you think you could have fixed it or contributed or even a solution to fix it. I get upset because I need to see initiative, and I need to see it because you’re the one on the ground, especially if you’re the CEO or manager and you have 500 things going.
Therefore, you are probably more knowledgeable than I am about what will contribute to its resolution or its prevention in the future. I’m still establishing my team and working on this lesson with them since I think sometimes they are reluctant to speak up. Even though they may believe that their firm is 50% responsible, they may be reluctant to say it out loud because they worry that they may unintentionally speak poorly of the organization, especially if you are the owner or a leader. As a result, I advise leaders to cultivate that open door. You will always be constrained by the fact that these people are, you know, your subordinates, employees, or staff, but if you can, try to cultivate that as much as you can. So I’ll argue with my team that occasionally we merely had a procedural problem. The client may become the subject of a client horror story because it wasn’t a big deal. However, what do you advise I do instead? It relieves some of the mental strain I’m under somewhat.
Morgan (Host): I will say, feel free to send this to the team. In the process of taking off my professional hat and putting on my rabbinic wannabe hat, I get people to give my friends advice, which happens far too often they come to me for advice. I am a bit too often telling people to refer people to me when they ask me for advice. You’re not responsible for the trauma, but you are responsible for the healing. As trauma happens, bad things happen. I like the framing. It doesn’t matter who is responsible for what happened, but you are solely responsible for healing yourself, for fixing it if possible.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): I learned someone said that to me a few years ago, and I thought that was the best thing they could have said. Even though you feel justified, it doesn’t mean you have to act on it; you have to work through the healing process. Perhaps a client gets frustrated with you, or perhaps they charge back you or something, and it devastates you financially, causes all sorts of legal problems for you, then you are justified in feeling betrayed by them. However, just like you said, this is just a minor example of business. It’s up to you to figure out what you need to do to prevent this from happening again. This is a part of the discussion that I wish was injected more into client horror stories in the manner you suggest. The way I deal with my team when they are frustrated with a client is probably better than trying to figure out how to prevent this blah, blah, blah, note, I might need to stop and go, Okay, your frustrations and feelings are justified, how can I help? I am noting that down for a lesson today.
Morgan (Host): I love it! That’s a great lesson. Now to wrap up, you had a mini client horror story that you wanted to jump into. Let’s continue the fun and do it.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Let’s do it. Everything we’ve discussed is a good segue for this topic, as one of the things I’ve observed is that business owners behave in a certain way as business owners and they behave in a completely different way as consumers. If I had the time, I would dive in to figure out why they behave in such a way. I have a perfect example of this where consumers do things as consumers that they complain about as business owners. I do a lot of copyright infringement work. The creators, photographers, and educators online who have courses, photography assets, and stuff like that are very upset when their work gets stolen. I agree with them, they’re brand elements, they’ve paid for it and they’re getting business from it. And I had a client whose intellectual property was stolen.
In the beginning, I went through the whole process of reflecting on what we had done wrong, and I replied, “I’m a lawyer, I’m good, but I’m not God. In the case of copyright infringement, I can send them letters all day long telling them to stop, and asking them for money, but I cannot physically force them to stop. The only other level would be the judge. And even then a judge can only make a judgment. You can only do so much to get monetary recovery, and that sucks.” So anyhow, this client was very upset because we weren’t getting enough of the financial return that they wanted. And I had already laid those expectations out front based on experience and circumstances. And this person was an educator in the industry. It was funny how my client’s attitude was how dare they use my intellectual property and not pay me as someone stealing my work. As a result, when we couldn’t get her the payday she expected, and we can’t promise it, she had a decent offer that was probably more than she would have received in court if she had gotten it. She didn’t have to pay any court fees or attorney fees. She was irate and demanded all her money back from us because it wasn’t the offer that she wanted it to be.
This was just interesting because it’s almost like, hold on, you’re mad at them for not paying you for your IP, but you won’t pay me for my time, and I still got your results. It wasn’t a super horror story. In my case, we refunded, it wasn’t worth my time. Another offer was on the table, and I wanted to consider that offer calmly. I did all the legwork. And it just was easier to not deal with them anymore. So, I just refunded them and sent them on their way because we had plenty of other clients who appreciate and love us. The reason I share that is that I want to encourage business owners to watch how they treat their customers. We see this sometimes. I had digital contract shops, and people will be irate that a download that they bought five years ago. The files would be missing on their drive, and they want them right away even though we have an online portal, and the files are already there. But they won’t stop complaining.
Although it may not be a true horror story, business owners should remain vigilant so they can help change consumer behavior. There are other mechanical things we can do, but it wasn’t like a big legal battle.
Morgan (Host): I think it classifies as a minor horror story. I have some comments on that. My question is did you have any clues when that was happening, that she would be the type of person that would turn on you when things go wrong? Where did you notice and paid attention to that matter?
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Here’s the lesson on it though. She had a family member in a big industry so I was trying to impress them a bit. I was trying to help the brand. However, I saw the Red Flags, but I allowed it, and I think part of the reason I was fine with just refunding, blessing, and releasing was that I ignored the Red Flags. I took that responsibility.
Morgan (Host): Oh, that’s why! Also, I like the subtle lesson within the lesson is that too often we ignore risk factors or excuse bad behavior because of the significance of a big name. You subconsciously don’t even pay attention to the Red Flags, and on top of the Red Flag on top of Red Flag because they’re so famous and big. You want it to work after all they’re famous.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): However, if it had gone the other way, it would have been accolades, so it was almost like a lottery. You either lose the money on the ticket, or you win, and I lost. And actually what’s so unfortunate is that I allowed it to impact me personally. I started to feel very personal about it to the point that I remember where I was standing in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World while on vacation with my family, dealing with it. I was trying to coordinate with the team just to get this chick her money so that I didn’t have to deal with it anymore. As I’ve said, I do not call women chicks, but I was going to call them another term because it didn’t reflect the facts I’ve shared. Rather, it reflected the way the words were framed.
So maybe I should have put some of that context; it was the behavior. So, their disappointment in not receiving a return was not as great. That did sort of lower my grade, I guess. It was the way she reacted to it that made it personal to us. The fact that I can recall where I was standing and how the sun felt on my iPhone while I tried to organize to get this taken care of is horrible, and I was upset about it, and I allowed her to do that. It was my fault. She was in charge of her actions. However, I allowed it to interfere with my family’s vacation.
Morgan (Host): That’s a powerful lesson. And, I agree that being called those words is what makes it over the top. In a cynical sense, we might think that she called you those words on purpose to make you emotional, just so you’d be like, okay, refund?
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): I tend to think so about this person, but I don’t think it’s the case with most people, in my opinion. Well, I’m just speculating here; I don’t know. I feel that sometimes we speak out of emotion even when we don’t mean it. Her actions were pretty direct. It resembled a child acting out in several ways. They only received eight lollipops instead of the promised ten. And then behaved horribly after that and essentially threw themselves on the store floor.
Morgan (Host): And there was a little scene in it that reminded me of some of the very early days of Microsoft. Around 12 people were working in the tiny office in Arizona, and Bill Gates served as their leader when they were negotiating with IBM for the big deal. As a result, IBM sent representatives, including lawyers or other representatives, to the tiny office’s conference room. Bill Gates entered with others. Additionally, the rest of the team was outside the conference room when they heard screaming. And then, after a while, Bill Gates comes out from this screaming activity to get a cup of water from the water cooler. And an employee approaches him and ended up being interviewed for the book. He asked, “Is everything OK in there? Because we are all hearing screams.” And Bill Gates calmly replied, “Of sure, everything is going according to plan,” it appears that this was a component of his negotiation plan.
On a bigger scale, I liked what you said about you being a final storyteller, which is a small horror story and itself is indicative of a flawed human nature and there are several ways to express it, like the way you framed it more positively as double standards. On one hand, it is true, but on the other hand, the love of money causes all evil. For example, I can save $5 by getting this money back, and then suddenly, people go crazy, like, and almost bad behavior comes out, and I don’t know how to fix this flaw in human nature to bid on Apple; maybe you should just grow new apples.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Oh, Granny Smith’s apples sound good right now! The funny thing about it is that we do hundreds of copyright cases every year. And we’re very selective, so we get 1000s of inquiries, but we’re very selective about what we take because I’m very honest to say you’re going to spend X 1000 and you’re not going to get X 1000 back, so unless you’re ready to be upside down, it’s not for you. I’m always honest with our clients, you know, I can make money off of it, but it also prevents terrible situations. I’m rightfully legally owed money if someone uses my podcast or something like that. But I do think that one thing that is important in the larger picture is that client poor stories are very real and can have a significant impact on your life as well. This is probably just one sliver of your business when you look at it on a broader scale. If it’s more than one sliver, you should listen to this episode when we discussed doing after-action reviews. I think it’s because we’re always thinking about what lessons to take away from this, like setting the expectation, but there’s no guarantee we will be right. And I use the exact phrase, like I said, “I’m good, but I’m not God. I cannot force people to pay you. I can’t force them to respond.” As a consumer, I understand that you look to me, or whatever industry you’re in, for guidance. And so it’s a fine line.
And it’s something I’m still working on. That event didn’t break my business. She could have gone public. I couldn’t respond publicly because of my legal ethics, so all I could say is that’s not how it happened. But just understand that one client’s horror story won’t kill you. This will also depend on where you are in your business, but if you don’t make changes, strengthen your muscles, develop maturity and learn from the horror story, that’s what will kill you, not the client.
Morgan (Host): These are some great wise words to end the podcast. I cannot top that, and I’m not going to. I’m just going to thank you for coming and everyone who’s made it to the end. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I did.
Rachel Brenke (interviewee): Awesome! Thanks, guys! Have a good one!
Morgan (Host): Thank you, everyone!
This transcription belongs to Episode #29, please watch the complete episode here!