Every other Thursday, I present a rainmaking problem for which I don’t have satisfactory answers. Here is another in our series brought to me at a coaching session by a professional whom I will call Hazel. I have seen this problem before and always have been uncomfortable with my answers. I hope you will offer your suggestions in the comments at the end of this post.
Hazel made partner at her firm about a year ago, after two back-to-back years of delivering over $3,000,000 in new business. Her biggest client in both years was an insurance company, where her primary sponsor was a man named Bill. Bill had also hired her to work on five matters already this year. Yesterday he called to inform her that he had been let go and set up a time to meet with her next week.
Hazel dreads this meeting. She knows she owes Bill a lot and wants to help him, both because she feels she has a debt to repay and because he has three small children at home. But she is reluctant to introduce him to her other clients.
After three years of working with him, she is all too familiar with his weaknesses. Though nice enough, he makes many sloppy mistakes and frequently fails to follow through on his commitments. A high-maintenance client, he requires constant attention and also takes criticism poorly.
There are ethical and practical aspects to her problem.
- The ethical problem: She owes Bill a huge debt. Without his business she would not have been promoted to partner. He has also served unfailingly as a reference. She made a significant mistake on one assignment for him, which he caught and dealt with generously. On the other hand, she also is indebted to the people he will want introductions to. And she owes her other clients and contacts fair treatment, too. She is uncomfortable giving Bill her implicit endorsement in a referral.
- The practical problem: She is most concerned about the ethical issues, but is naturally aware of the practical ones. Bill has already stated that he will give her business no matter where he lands. That pledge, she knows, would not withstand Bill realizing that she was withholding aid during his job search. If she refers him to another client who hires him, that client is bound to become aware of his shortcomings. If the new job doesn’t work out and he is let go, it could reflect badly on her.
I have been in a similar situation, myself, and felt as torn as Hazel does. What should a professional do in this situation?
(Got a problem selling professional services? Feel free to email me your problem and it may become a future “Rainmaking Problem.”)