There Was This One Day When I Fired My Client

There are times when employee retention is more important than customer retention.


Stu Englander

3 years ago | 6 min read

It gave me more perspective than I could ever ask for

This story has to begin with some historical background.

A man came to work for me one day who I can only describe as one of the oddest creatures I’ve ever met. Being in the small parcel delivery business, you tend to acquire a lot of transients. Generally, they are people with limited ‘hard skills’, willing to drive cars to earn a living, or they are there as a stop on the way to something better.

It was during the economic downturn of the early 2000s, and to save money, I was running the business out of my house. My office window had a lovely view of the driveway and on this particular day, a rust-red, 1978 Pontiac Acadian came to a sputtering halt just outside.

A gruff looking man in his mid-forties crawled out of the vehicle and entered my home. You get a pretty good feel for people when you hire on brokers, and it was readily apparent, this guy had obviously come up hard.

He sat down across from me and said he was looking for work. “OK”, I said. The first thing I wanted to know was if he intended to use that car.

“Oh yeah”, he replied. “I know it looks rough, but it gets around great, and I know how to fix it on the fly. It's just like me.”

He went on to tell me about his extensive experience in the industry and when he’d finished, I asked him his name.

“Robin”, he said. “Robin Francis.”

Now, that would be the very last name I would have ever tagged on this rough and tumble looking fellow. He seemed amiable enough, and as my enterprise was still in its fledgeling stage, I decided to take him on.

Fast forward about six months and Robin was working out just fine in the job. He was, however, going through some marital issues which were getting quite nasty.

Sometimes, being a small business owner is sort of like being a bartender. Your employees often share more about their personal lives than you’d care to hear, but he worked through his issues and became a trusted employee. I learned that he had been raised in one of the roughest neighbourhoods of Toronto, and married his now ex-wife when she became pregnant. As happens often, doing the right thing isn’t always the right thing. Robin divorced, and life seemed to return to normal.

Business was looking up after a while, so I moved my operation into a new office. I also felt that in order to expand, I would need to get out from behind my dispatch desk. Robin had related to me over time that he once ran a similar operation of his own. We discussed at length the possibility of him becoming my dispatcher, and we agreed to terms.

All was going well for about a year when one morning, Robin walked into the office and sat down across from my desk. His shoulders sagged noticeably, and he had a fearful look.

It’s important to understand, that look on his face was quite a departure from his normal appearance, which was a man who looked like he could go several rounds with Mike Tyson.

“What’s up, Rob?”, I asked as gently as I could.

“I’ve got some really bad news to tell you”, he said, shuffling nervously in his chair. Then, after a pause he just blurted out, “They found cancer.” This once, rock of a figure, suddenly broke into tears.

For the next hour, the two of us sat there sobbing and trading reassuring platitudes. He explained that doctors had found an advanced growth in his throat, and they would have to remove two-thirds of his jaw and most of his oesophagus. Extensive chemo treatments and radiation were soon to follow after.

All I could do at this point was assure him that he would get through this, and his job was here for him when he was ready. We stood up and walked toward the door together. Robin gave me the hardest bearhug I’ve ever experienced.

My administrative assistant and I spent the next few weeks doing everything possible to fatten Robin up before his operation and chemo. Lorraine plied him full of homemade pastas and other rich dishes. I kept buying him doughnuts. His new girlfriend, who was a godsend for Robin, just fed him, constantly. Robin managed to put on almost sixty pounds before undergoing the heavily invasive procedure.

Another eight months passed and Robin, came through his treatment with amazing strength and determination. Finally, the day came and he returned to my office and announced in a very raspy voice, he was ready to get back to work. I will never forget the emaciated figure that stood before me that day.

“Are you sure you’re up to it?”, I asked, very concerned.

“Stu”, he said, “If I don’t start working again, I might as well just die.” Without any need for further explanation, Robin returned to dispatch duties on a part-time basis. Within a few months, he was able to put in a full day, five days a week.

Robin carried on working for ten more years. Whatever he was able to eat, he brought with him and ate at his desk. That was his wish and I was happy to oblige. Over the years, customers got to know Robin over the phone. Most were aware of his condition, the restrictions he was faced with daily, and they adored and trusted him.

Whenever I went visiting my clients, I was always regaled with warm regards for the raspy-voiced Robin. My business started to grow due in no small part to the diligence and relationship-building efforts of Robin.

Now I’ll tell you honestly, Rob and I didn’t always agree. In fact, on many occasions, we fought like tomcats over hard decisions that needed to be made in the heat of battle. But, we always came away from our disagreements as friends. Yes — friends.

We had a lot of laughs working together too. I admit there were times we sounded like a couple of high school kids. I may not have always agreed with his methods in his job, but I trusted him implicitly to do the right thing for the business when the chips were down.

One day I took a phone call from an irate customer. Without going into detail, I will tell you this man was adamant that Robin, had lied to his secretary about a certain shipment. As any good manager would do, I promised the customer I would investigate the issue and call him back. Then I went into the dispatch office and sat down to discuss the matter with Robin.

From the moment I broached the subject, I could tell where Rob stood on the issue just from his body language. He looked like a caged bear. He felt like he was being set up, and he expressed as much to me. He also explained the situation with a calmness I’d never seen in him before. I knew immediately he was telling me the truth.

I returned to my office and called the client back. As I explained Robin’s version of events to the man on the other end of the line, I could hear the rage building inside him. He flung expletives in mine and Robin’s direction and insisted with a venomous tone that my employee was a liar and a cheat. I asked the man if he had ever met Robin personally. He replied no and it didn’t matter.

“Lucky for you”, I thought to myself.

I finally decided I’d heard enough.

I’ve never done this before, and never again hence, but I calmly said to this customer, “Sir, I want to ask you one question if I could.”

“What is it?”, he said gruffly.

“Where do you keep our telephone number? Is it on speed dial, or written down in a Rolodex?”

“What difference does that make?”, he demanded.

“Well, wherever you do have it, I would like you to do me a favour.”, I said. “Erase it.”

“What!?”, he screamed into the receiver, “Are you firing me?”

“That’s precisely what I’m doing”. I quickly replied. “I can tell you with absolute certainty you have no grounds for your claim. You have no right to slander the good name of someone I put my complete trust in. You might as well be calling me a liar at the same time.”

I hung up the phone.

Robin was standing at the door of my office and heard every word. “Are you nuts?”, he said in shock. “You know he’s going to tell everybody he knows what you just said.”

“Good”, I said. “That’s the kind of business we can do without.”

As expected, we survived the incident without noticeable effect. Our clients understood who we were. They never doubted our integrity, and that’s what kept me in business for years to follow.

Robin was hospitalized again a couple of years later where eventually died at the age of sixty-one. Through twelve years of what must have been a living hell, I never once heard a word of complaint from Robin about his ailment.

He was gruff and raw, and fiercely loyal. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t think of him now, several years on. There are some things in life you just can’t buy — or sell. Those are the things, the people, I’ve learned to cherish most.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. You can find more of my thoughts and writing on Medium


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Stu Englander







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