THE CONTRACT: When to Bill it? When to Bite it?

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Recently I had, shall we say, a ‘difference of opinion’ with my satellite television company (the one I won’t mention by name because my attorney warned me not to). Although I had a legitimate reason for canceling my service, they were unwilling to adjust or waive the $300 cancellation fee.

Which brings me to a rant—Cable companies (or internet or cell phone or fill in the blank) who require you to:
A. Hand over your first born child or $300 in the event that you want to cancel your two year contract with them (regardless of why, including their lousy service and really bad attitude); and
B. Read a 4 page contract in 3 pt font that no one, in the entire universe, reads from start to finish (except the customer service rep who swore he does).

I don’t know about you, but I do not respond well to situations in which I haven’t any choices. Given the fact that I must use one of these companies if I actually want to watch the television, I am incensed that they offer zero flexibility in their policies. These airtight contracts are one way for companies to keep you in their grip, and away from their competition. I understand their desire to lock in as much business as they can. But, ultimately, it is we consumers who are paying the price (literally and figuratively) for the ongoing struggle over market share that they have with their competition.

May I naively suggest that if they had outstanding customer service, there likely wouldn’t be much competition?

The options they offered? “Ms. Solomon, we can take your cancellation
fee from your debit card or your checking account. What would you like
to do?” “Not pay at all” wasn’t one of their multiple-choice answers.

Four phone calls and many hours later I finally acquiesced: The $300
was just not worth the price of a heart attack. Which made me even more
furious because although their service had not lived up to their
promise, I was held bound to my two-year commitment. I was told that I
had no recourse. None. That is NEVER okay when it comes to your
customer.

Fast forward to the next day. I had a contract with one of my
relatively new clients to deliver a three-day retreat. The enrollment,
however, was atypically slow (maybe the summer?) and I found myself in
a difficult position: On the one hand, I had a signed contract stating
that they were obligated to pay me after a specified date, regardless
of whether or not the event actually took place. On the other hand, I
felt compelled to ‘do the right thing’ – the relationship I’d
cultivated with this client was important to me. VERY. She had gone to
Herculean efforts to insure the event was filled to capacity. It just
didn’t work out that way.

What made this situation particularly powerful is that I insist that my
clients maintain healthy professional and personal boundaries by having
their clients sign clear and binding contracts. What was I to do? Bill
her for a service I didn’t deliver, or bite it and rip the darn thing
up? Could I financially afford to blow it off? Heck no.

Here’s what I did. This client and I had made the decision to partner
together going into the event, so why couldn’t we partner going out?
(Yes I, too, was reminded of all those romantic relationships that
didn’t work out). Technically it wasn’t my job to project manage, nor
to fill that room. Technically. Well, there’s the letter of the
contract and the spirit of the same.

The fact is, when we say we’re committed to something, anything, we’d
best be darn clear as to what that commitment is. This requires us to
examine our intentions behind our actions, not just the actions
themselves. What was I committed to? Helping the women in this
organization to become more powerful in their personal and professional
lives; assisting them to turn their potential into performance. Would
billing the client for a cancelled service be fulfilling that
commitment?

To paraphrase e.e. cummings, “one must learn every rigid rule of
grammar so that they can then break them.” That’s equally true of a
contract, especially when the business is your own. You must have an
articulate and detailed contract with your clients AND then you have
the choice as to whether or not you want to render some of those
boundaries fluid.

What did I do? My client and I engaged in ongoing conversation for two
weeks. We were in this together. We developed a plan. I rolled up my
sleeves and put all my energy behind enrollment. I did everything I
could to make sure my client was winning. Why? It’s that commitment
thing again. I strongly believe that I’d better be the empowered woman
I teach about. Martyr? Suck-up? Self-righteous? No. Just committed to
deliberate leadership. And you?

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