Talking Trash About Customers

April 16, 2007 on 6:30 pm | In Customer Service | Comments Off

Why would you ever say anything bad about your customer? I have advocated in the past that there are customers you should fire because they absorb too much of your overhead and do not contribute positively to the bottom line. This article appeared in Contract Management magazine and can be found here. But today I’m talking about going public with criticism of your customer. Suppose you have sued them, a matter of public record. Can they then retaliate against you and deny you a contract because you are “litigation happy” or have spoken to the press negatively about them? In the usual commercial setting, buyers can make commercial contracting decisions based on anything they deem important. Many companies will tell you that they will avoid doing business with any party they think likes trips to the courthouse too much. And there isn’t much you can do about that except improve your relationship with that buyer.
In the public sector, however, stringent rules require that decisions be based only on appropriate criteria. In a recent Texas case a city selected a contractor who was NOT the low bid solely on the basis that the low bidder had sued another city over a contract dispute. Although the state court initially sided with the city the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed. So long as the actions by the contractor were matters of public concern, the court held, free speech of a party can outweigh the city’s interest in promoting efficiency. (Case No. 05-10836, August 31, 2006).
So what is the lesson here? Generally the less said the better, but in matters of public procurement speaking out about the process and especially perceived errors or bias in decision-making causes the speech generally to be considered a matter of public concern and will be protected. This doesn’t mean that a company can’t get a bad reputation as a complainer, and contracting officers are human – challenge them too often and they will remember you negatively. But given the rules for government contracting, their ability to retaliate is very limited. Commercial companies, on the other hand, if they see you complaining too much, will develop their own opinions of you – and they can exclude you any time they want for any (or no) reason at all.
Balance what you have to say. Sometimes it is important to speak out and identify flaws in the system. Other times – keeping silent can be the best long-term approach. Whenever you speak, however, make sure you have your facts straight. Speaking out when you do not know what you are talking about will definitely give you a bad reputation!

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