Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Look, It's Not Personal, It's Just Business

One of the less pleasant things that I do in my job is to review customer requests for termination of their contracts. If the customer's agreement does not provide for an early termination, they are stuck until the end of their term. We don't generally let people cancel their contracts just because they change their minds or are having financial trouble. This is usually not something that the customer wants to hear, and sometimes they get quite upset. Occasionally, they even get a little huffy and rude, but the guy I talked to the other day really took the cake.

Unlike many of these requests, this guy didn't claim that he had the right to terminate. In fact, he admitted right at the outset that he did not have any right to terminate, but said that he was hoping we would offer him some sort of a settlement so that he could pay and be done with the contract. This is also something that we don't usually do, but sometimes we will offer a settlement based on the net present value of the remaining contract term, if the circumstances warrant. So I went out and got the approvals from our finance people, and I called the guy back to negotiate. As soon as I mentioned my opening figure, he got extremely angry. There was much bluster about how he'd been our customer for 39 years (odd, given that we'd pulled a credit report on the company and it was founded in the late 1980s) and he just can't believe that we do business that way-- because apparently in this guy's vast experience as a businessman lo these 39 years, insisting that people fulfill their contractual obligations just isn't done?

I explained to him again that he doesn't actually have the right to end his contract early, and asked him if he had a counteroffer. After yelling for a bit about how I never asked him that (ummmmm... I'm pretty sure I just did), he came back with a figure that would essentially amount to me letting him out of more than half the remaining term of his contract, so I advised him that such an amount was not even in the ballpark of what we were willing to consider. This set off a wave of increasingly belligerent "questions" along the lines of "Well, don't you feel bad doing this to me?" and (this one's an actual quote) "Is your conscience going to let you sleep tonight?"

Let's all take a moment to recall that we are not talking about me denying him a kidney transplant, or foreclosing on his house, or even repossessing his car. We're talking about my refusal to allow him to break a business contract that he entered into knowingly (and I was actually talking to the person who signed the contract, so it's not like he inherited someone else's bad decision or anything)-- and also that the total dollar amount of the remaining contract term is in the very low five figures. My car cost more than the amount that this guy was getting so angry over.

When I didn't break down in tears, apologizing for my lack of understanding for his feelings and offer to let him out right away, he threatened to "call [his] attorney". I guess he thought that would scare me into doing his will, but honestly, even if it weren't true that I, myself, am an attorney, he should have realized that a big company like mine has a whole stable of lawyers. My calm reply of "That's fine. If he has any questions, or if he needs me to forward him a copy of your agreement to review, please have him call me, and I'll be glad to provide him with the information he needs" was apparently not the response he wanted either, because he really started to lose his cool, and said to me "Well, if I treated people the way you're treating me, welllll... you'd just better get down on your knees and pray to Jesus for forgiveness."

Seriously? Are you kidding me?

One of my colleagues recently had a conversation that went something like this:

"I've reviewed your agreement with us, and paragraph 12 states that you cannot terminate for any reason during the initial five year term. You still have four years remaining in that initial term, so the earliest date that you will be able to terminate this contract is January 2012."

"Says you!"

Says you?? I would have been too flabbergasted for words. Ann, however, very dryly responded, "No, says paragraph 12 of your agreement."

Other customers have screamed and yelled about how their business is already failing and I should have more sympathy. I would dearly love to reply to these customers "I'm very sorry to hear that your business is failing. However, the fact that you have made some bad business decisions doesn't mean that I should make them. My company is doing very well because we don't make decisions based on feeling sorry for someone. Please explain to me how it would be a good business decision for my company if I to allow you to back out of your obligation to us. What's in it for my company if you get to break your contract just because you don't want to pay for it anymore? NOTHING. Which means that it would be a bad decision on my part. And I don't want my business to fail, so I'm trying to avoid making bad decisions wherever possible." However, in the interest of keeping my job, I usually have to be satisfied with saying things about "obligations" and "I need to make the best decision for My Company here, and I'm afraid that means we are not going to allow you to break your contract early." This may be professional, but it is not satisfactory.

I wish that I could skip this part of the job and deal strictly with document drafting, negotiating new contracts, and helping to develop the new training program.



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