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Rachel Kosmal McCart is a lifelong horsewoman and the founder of Equine Legal Solutions, PC, an equine law firm based in the Portland, Oregon area. Rachel is a member of the New York, California, Oregon and Washington State bars and is admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Rachel currently competes in three-day eventing.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

When a Training Client Leaves: How to Make a Departure Pay Dividends

Horse training clients leave a barn for all sorts of reasons. The client’s horse may not be succeeding in the trainer’s program, or the client might feel another trainer’s program is a better fit. Due to job changes, marital problems, or other reasons, the client may be under financial strain. Sometimes, a client is just plain burned out and wants to take a break. Occasionally, a client has been with the same trainer for so long that they feel they have learned everything that trainer can teach them, and they’re ready to move on. A client’s reasons for leaving a trainer rarely have anything at all to do with how the client views the trainer as a person. Often, the client has stayed with the trainer far longer than they otherwise would have, simply because they like the trainer and don’t want to hurt their feelings by leaving. But, the trainer often takes the client’s departure personally.

At Equine Legal Solutions, we hear a lot of horror stories involving clients leaving training barns. Often, shortly after informing the trainer of their decision to leave, the client receives a huge bill containing unexpected charges, and the trainer insists on payment in full before the trainer will release the client’s horse. Occasionally, the client’s announcement results in an ugly confrontation at the barn or a horse show. Once in a while, the client even fears for the safety of their horses. As a result, the client does develop negative feelings about the trainer, feelings that probably wouldn’t have existed had the trainer handled the situation more professionally.
How, then, should you handle a client’s departure announcement?

1. Be polite. Even if the client’ s departure is a true blessing and you can’t wait to see the client and their good-for-nothing horses disappear down your driveway, it doesn’t cost you anything to find something nice to say. Even in the worst client relationships, you can find something polite and truthful to offer. For example, “I sure have appreciated your business, and I wish you the best.” Treating even the worst clients with respect may pay dividends later in the form of referrals, or at the very least, maintain your own dignity.

2. Get the facts. Rather than relying on secondhand information, you should ask the client, directly and sincerely (and as soon as possible) why they are leaving. Sometimes, the client may be uncomfortable voicing their concerns, but even in those situations, you can usually read between the lines. Whatever the client’s reasons for leaving are, you need to know – the future of your business may depend upon it.

3. Use the facts. The client’s reasons for leaving may be indicative of a problem in your program that needs to be addressed. Horse training business problems aren’t always obvious, and they aren’t always directly related to the horses. Maybe another client is driving your customers away with their difficult personality, or possibly another trainer is openly poaching your clients. Perhaps the vet or farrier you use charges more than your clients can handle. The client might even offer you a wakeup call, such as that one of your employees is behaving inappropriately with your customers. Once in a while, the client’s reasons for leaving may offer a crystal-ball peek at larger horse market trends, such as changes toward or away from particular disciplines and breeds. Even in situations where the client’s reasons for leaving don’t have anything to do with the horse industry in general or your training program in particular, you can at least rest assured that the client’s departure was not your fault. Whatever the client’s feedback is, you can use it.

4. Don’t hold the client hostage. If your client wants to leave before the notice period specified in your training agreement or boarding contract, let them. If the trainer-client relationship is ending on a good note, you won’t want to risk ruining that, and you won’t gain anything more than just a few dollars by trying to make them stay. When the relationship is acrimonious, an early departure reduces the chance the departing client will be around to poison your relationships with your other customers, and it also shortens the amount of time you’ll have to continue dealing with a difficult situation. Either way, you win.

5. Don’t hold the client’s horses hostage. While many states have laws that provide horse trainers with automatic liens on horses in training for unpaid bills, it’s rarely sensible to enforce your lien rights. While you may be right to think that once you release the horses, the client has no incentive to pay their bill, you have to consider the costs of enforcing your lien. Just like it doesn’t usually make sense to enforce a boarding stable lien, enforcing a horse trainer’s lien is usually cost-ineffective. Instead, the better business strategy for dealing with a client who isn’t paying is (a) minimizing your costs and risks by getting the horses and the client out of the barn as soon as possible, and (b) if necessary, taking the client to small claims court for the unpaid boarding and training bills.

6. Make the transition as smooth as possible. A client’s departure is your last chance to make a good impression on the client, and it’s a great opportunity to make new contacts, or renew old relationships. If the client is going to another trainer, call them up and offer them any information that might be helpful, such as medications and supplements the horses need. You just never know when that other trainer might refer someone to you, or even be judging you at a show. Find out when your client’s horses are leaving, and make sure there is someone there to meet the hauler and help load the horses. Promptly send out a final bill to the client, and answer any questions they may have about it. Round up all of the client’s belongings, such as halters, leads and blankets, and make sure they go home neatly packaged, reasonably clean, and in good shape. If a sheet has been destroyed, or you can’t find the client’s grain bucket, let them know before they have a chance to think you lost it (or worse, that you kept it). Make sure the client’s horses leave clean, in good weight, and with feet trimmed, manes pulled and muzzles clipped. This is your time to shine, to bolster your image as a professional trainer who is organized and takes excellent care of horses and clients.

7. Leave the door open. For those clients whom you’d be happy to see return, be sure to let them know that they are welcome to come back if they change their mind. Some clients may leave thinking the grass is greener at another trainer’s barn, and then find out it’s not. Being gracious about their departure paves the way for them to come back to you after recognizing how good they really had it at your barn!

More Business Information for Horse Trainers

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