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Is it ethical to take customers away?
Is it ethical to take customers away?

Is it possible to say unequivocally, in all 100% of cases, that if clients follow the employee, it is always unethical on the part of the quit? Withdrawal of clients from the firm.

The topic is both relevant and complex … Let's try to figure it out with the help of a game based on the technology of V. Tarasov's managerial fights. So, you have a situation in front of you. Further - a few preliminary remarks and a played dialogue between the "Director" and "Shareholder" with comments "along the way" …

“Share in the case” situation

The director is going to leave the advertising agency Alfa (part of the holding) and open his own business in a related area. The Alpha shareholder understands that with the departure of the director, some of the clients and employees will move to the new Betta company, and that this will entail a loss of profit and reputation, and does not want to let him go.

The shareholder offers the director to stay for a higher salary and percentage of profits, but is not ready to share his share in the business.

The partner of the shareholder (who was not directly involved in management) does not want to share his shares and offers him to change the director.

Roles and interests:

  • The director - to leave, having organized his own business, to remain in good relations with the shareholder and his partners, in extreme cases, to remain for a 25% share in the business of Alpha.
  • Shareholder - to keep the director, not to share shares, to keep the growing business.
  • Client - wants to work with the director, but also to remain on good terms with the Alpha firm.
  • A partner of a shareholder - not to share shares without creating a precedent for other directors of the holding, to change directors if necessary.

In this case, the fundamental difference in the worldviews of “Director” and “Shareholder” lies in the issue of ethical withdrawal of clients from the company.

Indeed, is it possible to say unequivocally, in all 100% of cases, that if clients follow the employee, it is always, in all 100% unethical on the part of the quit? Let's look at the extreme poles, and then try to highlight the criterion that will draw the line between ethical and unethical behavior in this matter.

So, if the sales manager quit, for example, who worked for the company for three months and attracted a couple of clients during this time; the client base is several thousand records in electronic form. And this manager copied this list and took it with him to another company, where he also asked for money for it - this is 100% theft, and the unethicalness of this step, I think, is beyond doubt. Well, we also add, so that for sure - no one in the company deceived this manager, the company fulfilled all its obligations … Well, now the manager certainly behaved unethically.

The other pole. A specialist who provides some kind of services to clients, sometimes moves from firm to firm for some objective reason. He "carries" with him all his clients, who are accustomed to the fact that this particular specialist provides them with services personally, regardless of the company in which he currently works. Well, for example, a hairdresser … When applying for a job, this specialist informs in advance that these are his clients, and if he moves to another company, these clients will go after him. The firm does not "throw" new clients to him, he himself personally expands the client base, mainly "on the basis of recommendations." Here it is difficult to say with confidence that a specialist will act unethically by leaving for another company with these clients.

Moreover, this logic was brought to its logical conclusion by some Western real estate companies, which consider as their clients precisely these specialists, agents, realtors, whose client bases, by agreement, are the property of the agents themselves, and not the firm. At the same time, it is not the firm that pays the agent a commission, but the agents pay the firm for the services provided by the firm to help him run his business by working with his client base.

Of course, most companies cannot accept such a scheme of work, and most likely, it falls somewhere between these options. And the worldviews of different parties about the ethics of a particular customer base behavior may also differ. As happened with the participants in our dialogue.

And why is it important - does a person consider their behavior ethical? Usually a normal person wants to consider himself a good, decent person. And if he intends to do something, then in his picture of the world he must first arrange the ethics of this step. And with the withdrawal of customers as well. Therefore, if you just talk with a person in advance on this topic, then a lot can be understood: the site for which of his possible actions a person prepares. For example, someone in the department quit - why is there no reason to discuss with the rest (one-on-one including) how they assess his behavior … If they condemn a certain moment too emotionally, then this topic is worth digging deeper … Interesting, how such a picture of the world appeared in a person. And knowing this, you can find something empty in this part of the picture of the world, and before it's too late, try to change this picture of the world. Not the fact that it will work, of course. But there is always a chance …

Let's see what "little things" in the preliminary conversation of the participants, when they were just figuring out each other's worldviews, already pointed out the difference in their worldviews in terms of the client base, and then let's move on directly to the round's dialogue.


"Director": … For 15 years of work in the company, I have created a client base, which is 80% of the total client base of the company …

Do you feel it? The director already divides the firm's client base into "his" and "general". Now let's not talk about the fact that the director was supposed to work as a director, and not as a salesman or a customer acquisition manager. Even if the business is such that there are not many clients, and they are of such a level that directors are attracted to them … All the same, it is your responsibility as a director to ensure the presence of a client base in the company. If you want - collect it yourself, if you want - hire the right people for this. Customers do not become “yours” just because you personally brought them to the company, and not your sales manager. After all, as a director, you do not give a sales manager special rights to those clients whom he brought? And if a manager leaves, don't "wrap" them with him with you - don't forget, your clients? What is the difference between you? There is no difference in this matter.

"Director": Since all the clients were brought by me personally to the firm, I hope that you, as well as I, consider it absolutely ethical that I offer them to be served at Betta on the same terms (but not the best terms) as at Alpha?

"Shareholder": I do not agree that all clients were brought by you personally, and I do not consider it ethical due to the fact that you worked in this company and received a salary for your activities. I will regard this as theft.

Here the director openly declares his position, namely: I consider it ethical to invite clients to leave with me, since I personally brought them to the company. Typical reasoning, don't you agree?

Interestingly, the director still has a feeling that not everything is so smooth, otherwise why would he add here a clarification about the terms of such an offer … It turns out that if I offer clients better terms than they were, then I will act unethical. And if they are the same, then it is ethical. Is it true or not?

I think this is just an attempt to hide the unethicality of the situation in general. And to offer better conditions is the basic law of competition. It is unethical to use an official position. Including offering clients to go to another company, while still being the director of this very company. But to compete honestly is ethical. And if after some time the new company would start to work so great, offer all clients the best conditions, then the clients themselves would come, and there is already an agreement (in one form or another) that the new company has no right to serve these clients (that is, I have to tell them so directly - dear customers, for 12 months we will not be able to serve you, because we have agreed with Alfa, but after 12 months - please). Or there is no such agreement (the desire of one of the parties to create an image of such an agreement is not considered retroactively) - and you can start serving customers immediately … But not agree in advance about the transition, and even using the official position.

The reasoning for the ethics of this position should be quite different.

Not like that: my clients, not firms, I do what I want … This is not so. The director performed his duties and received a salary for this. And the clients he brings are the clients of the firm. The director has no rights to them. The shareholder says this to the director. True, apparently, he is also not completely sure of his position, because, just in case, he also disputes the very fact that it was the director who brought clients. Why dispute this? If any client of the firm is a client of the firm, then what difference does it make if the director or someone else brought them in? Absolutely none. The position would be even stronger: dear director, but at least you brought all 100% of clients to the company, working part-time as a salesman, what's the difference? These are the clients of the firm. The client base is the property of the firm. For its organization, all participants in the process have already received their remuneration and have nothing to do with this property. And if you don’t understand this, then it’s not only too early for you to become an owner, but also it’s not a fact that you will remain the director of our company with such a position, even if you change your mind about leaving …

And what arguments could the director have?

Directly opposite, namely: dear shareholder, thank you for the trust in managing your property, I have now decided to go into business too, and I promise that I will be correct in relation to you and your property. Namely - I will not agitate a single client to go to our company. These are your clients, and there is no doubt about it. At the same time, if I manage to build a business so that the quality of services becomes better than now we were able to do here, and these clients want to serve me themselves - how will we agree to act with you? If I just tell them that this is wrong, they can leave both us and you. Clients have the right to choose, and we cannot deprive them of this right. Well, etc.

Agree, this is a different position - I do not have the right to the company's clients, but the clients have the right to choose … And here it is difficult to argue - after all, the client can come by himself? Maybe. What then to do with it? And here, for example, you can agree beneficially for both parties - for example, for some time to share a small percentage of such situations. If we "returned" the client back to you, you will share it with us. If it didn't work to "return", the client stayed with us - we will share with you.

It is clear that we are now discussing options for the absence of a "war" on this issue. If the struggle does begin, then another ethics will appear, military. And completely different tasks and methods. In the meantime, the task is to refrain from fighting and keep the peace in the issue of the client base.

And by the way, what to do if we are practically not competitors - we will have different goods or services? It is still unethical to take a customer base without demand - this is theft, deception, and therefore - war. But why not ask permission to use the database and share income from it? This is better than war.

Let's see this by observing the dialogue between the “Director” and the “Shareholder” with different worldviews about the ethics of withdrawing clients
Let's see this by observing the dialogue between the “Director” and the “Shareholder” with different worldviews about the ethics of withdrawing clients
"Director": In our previous conversation, it was said that if I open a company, and clients who were served before June 1 at your place, will begin to be served with us, you will sue about this. Tell me, for what purpose will the trial be opened?

"Shareholder": Oh, you know, I don't even think that such radical methods will be required. I think we will deal with you in other ways.

"Director": Well, that is, you think that you do not need to sue. It is also not advisable for me to open a company and some clients go to Betta to serve.

"Shareholder": You know, I will regard the transfer of clients that you found during your paid employment at my company to your new company as theft of clients. And I will take action. Will it be a trial or something else - I won't tell you yet. If you dare to start such a war - well, you will see how it all ends.

"Director": Firstly, I do not think that opening my company is a war.

"Shareholder": Opening - no. And stealing customers - yes.

"Director": The fact that their contract with your company has expired and that they have the right to conclude contracts with completely different companies cannot be called theft of clients.

"Shareholder": Customers have a right, you have no right …

"Director": Really … What do you mean?

"Shareholder": Well, do you remember your employment contract? Do you even remember the internal documents in our company? Are all subscriptions about privacy, customer service? That for three years you have no right to attract them?

Here the Shareholder began to move slightly off target. The director has no right to take clients away, not only because the employment contract says so. This is a good argument, though. But in this case, it rather shows that the Shareholder is not very confident in his position at the ethical level, since he immediately slipped onto the legal plane. It turns out that the lack of rights is dictated only by a line in the document? And if they didn't write it down in the contract, would it be all right? Still, these things need to be more clearly divided - and at the ethical level, you have no right, and even at the legal level, we have secured this, taking into account the general level of ethics in the country …

"Director": I would not like to discuss this issue now. I would like to discuss the issue of litigation. Here, suppose you are filing a lawsuit. What are you suing for? What claims can you file with Betta or me personally?

"Shareholder": Why are you bothering me with this trial?

But now it would be possible to develop your own legal arguments. That, in fact, will be something to present - a violation of the terms of the contract. You cannot present ethical claims to the court (well, or it is very difficult to do it), but here there is a contract, the terms of which the director violated. All clear. Moreover, it is felt that it is precisely the court that the Director is afraid of …

"Director": Well, because you threaten me with a court …

"Shareholder": I have been in business for many years, much more than you live in this world. Therefore, if I need to stop the process of stealing clients, I will stop it. Litigation, not litigation - I'm just telling you that clients will not go to your firm. Just remember all my experience and take my word for it.

"Director": I can say that in this case it sounds like a threat.

"Shareholder": This is not a threat. I treat you very well. I appreciate your professional skills. I am ready to pay you, and I have always paid, in my opinion, an adequate reward. And I believe that you have done a lot for my company. I appreciated you and will appreciate you. But I warn you - please do not interfere with this, in which you want to interfere. If you want to open your own business, please. Do you want to take my clients - I say no. I say that you will have big problems.

"Director": As for the words "my clients". These customers are not yours. These are clients, especially four clients, the largest ones are personally mine. Moreover, they do not sign contracts until I personally tell them - sign. They are not actually entering into a contract with a firm. They make a contract with me.

Well, here again the director openly presents his picture of the world. And here the Shareholder has something to ask the Director about in order to further clarify his "empty" …

"Shareholder": This is your vision.

This phrase can be understood as the Shareholder's disagreement with the Director's idea of such love and devotion of clients to him. This doubt has a right to exist, of course, and if the main “empty” of the Director lay here, then it would be worth developing this topic. But the main thing "empty" is not here, but in the Director's view that, in principle, there may be "his clients" at the firm …

There may be special relationships with clients, special trust even to the director personally, there may be a forecast about how certain clients will behave in connection with the director's departure, but there cannot be “director's clients” … This is what the Shareholder had to sort out with the Director first of all. Yes, customers can leave, but not because they are “your customers” and you have a right to them.

If the director "nods" at the clients, they say, I agree, but the clients think so, then the question arises - why did the director form such a picture of the world for these clients? That one should trust the director and not the firm? That the contracts offered to them by the firm do not enjoy the confidence of the clients and still need to be verified by the director? After all, this is a direct sabotage of the company. This means that the director was not doing what he did to the firm, but, on the contrary, harming it with his actions … This is what happens. And then it is necessary to consider not the question "and not whether to share a share for merits", but the question "under which article to dismiss" …

"Director": This is not my vision. That's what they say. What if you say that - yes, sign this agreement - we will sign it. If you don’t tell me to sign, we will not sign. That is, there is such a relationship here, and they will follow me. And if I make even worse conditions for them, they will still follow me. They don't need a firm, they need me. See, here's the thing.

"Shareholder": I'm even afraid to ask for what purpose … You know, if you have such fantasies, then it's kind of your own business.

Well, again, the Shareholder, instead of paying close attention to the director's picture of the world, and at least just showing him his ethical mistakes, simply “brushes off” this as a fantasy about customer loyalty …

"Director": I mean, they need me as a specialist in this area. If I work in another company, they will follow me.

"Shareholder": How long have you become such a specialist? You have always either sold or signed documents. And even then - the team gave you all the documents for signature. The team was taken from the holding. I certainly understand that …

Again, a "small" substitution of the shareholder's goal - instead of working with the picture of the world that the director already has (and there is something to work with), he tries to impose his own picture of the world, in which he is not such a useful person for clients … Thus, "by default", as it were, accepting the position that if you are a useful person for clients, then they can leave after you - and this will be correct. As if thinking - now I will prove that you are worthless - and everything will be all right … No, it will not be all right. The director will remain convinced that there are “his clients”, and he can do whatever he wants with them …

This is the kind of dialogue that turned out, which allowed us to get a little closer to understanding what is ethical and unethical in terms of “withdrawing” clients …

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