The Fire Your Customers Myth

The customer is always right. Or is he? Sometimes he’s wrong, and sometimes it’s good to rid yourself of customers who are a bad match with your business. But first, heed these suggestions for damage control.

The Customer is Always Right. Isn’t that what we’ve been told? If you’re in business, you know how preposterous that statement is. The customer isn’t always right, the customer is often wrong. Worse yet, you know it, he knows it, and he knows you know it.

This mantra was ramrodded down the throat of American business in the eighties (nineteen-eighties, that is) and early nineties that we became sick of living the lie. So what happened? Well, for the past five or six years it has become vogue to fire your customers—that is, those customers who are not profitable or are a pain in the…neck. The worm has truly turned. Sweet emotional release is achieved when you can stand proudly before your support group, chin high and twinkle in your eye, and utter, “I just fired a customer!” A hearty round of applause is bestowed upon you, as if you just announced you have been alcohol and drug free for six months.

Watch out! There is a need for caution and I’ll tell you why. It is perfectly acceptable to take inventory of your loyal, profitable customers and jettison the dogs, but like many things in American culture, many of us didn’t read the entire customer-expunging process manual. The idea seemed cool, so we figure we’d just go with the flow on getting it done. No consequences in today’s dog eat dog world. Herein lies the myth. Discharging customers the wrong way can and usually does lead to very bad things for your business. Customers talk, and word of mouth about bad experiences travels fast and far.

Last Tuesday, I was able to finally connect with the paving contractor who originally blacktopped my driveway about six years ago. It was time for a reseal, and we had been missing each other. The first experience with this guy had been pleasant and professional, so I was willing to single source the rework job, no questions asked. If you’re the contractor, this is ideal, right? Repeat business with no cost of the sale. Well, he shows up to give me the estimate, let’s call him Gino, and Gino has it already written by the time I can secure my infant and get outside to talk to him. It’s a standard seal job with an additional piece of beefing up a section of the driveway that was sunken over the years. The price was right, and then I asked a question.

“So, Gino, how are you going to raise that sunken section of the driveway?”

“Oh, I’ll put down three inches of gravel and pave over it.”

“Three inches, huh? Wow, it appears to be sunken a good foot there on the corner, is that enough?”

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, Karl, how long have you been laying blacktop? The corner needs to stay lower for water runoff.”

I think it’s a joke, so I ignore it. I also now understand Gino’s reasoning.

“Touché’! Well, you’re the expert. Sounds good to me. How do we get started?”

We agree that he’ll call in advance of the day he can get over, shake hands and he’s off.

End of story? Not exactly. Three days later I receive a voice mail message.

“Mr. Walinski (everyone does that), I can’t do your job. Thanks anyway.” <Click!>

My curiosity has got the better of me so I call back to see why the change of heart. Gino indignantly tells me that he doesn’t like anybody telling him how to do his job. He’s been doing this forever and I haven’t, and I’d be unhappy with the finished product, so he’s, in effect, firing me, and Oh by the way, your mother wears combat boots. Paul Bunyan couldn’t have knocked the chip off his shoulder.

“I said that?” I replied.

“Yeah, you told me that I sucked eggs and so did my entire family, so I don’t want to deal with you.”

It was my turn to hang-up on him. No one mentioned that it took three days for my supposed insults to get under his skin.

Bizarre? Exaggeration? Just a little on the combat boots line. The fact is that this customer treatment has become commonplace in the backlash against the Customer is Always Right slogan. If you’re in the service business (who isn’t?) and think this little escapade has no repercussions, think again.

1. I wrote this article and have a speech on Customer Service next month, where this story will make good content. It may end up on an audiotape and heard by hundreds of consumers. What happens if I use the business’ real name?

2. My Office Manager asked me the same day how my meeting with the blacktopper went, because she is getting her stone drive paved this year, and it’s a big one. What do you think I told her?

I made the difference in thousands of dollars in revenue on the same day this guy dissed me! HA HA!

By definition, letting customers go will probably be an unpleasant experience for them. Here are some suggestions for damage control.

Clarify Disagreements First. If you’ve had a quarrel with a customer, communicate with that person your perception of what you think is fair and allow her to do the same. Validate her concerns and allow her to question your judgment because she is paying you, even if she isn’t the expert you are. You may find out through discussion that a misunderstanding doesn’t warrant dumping the customer.

Be Professional. That means don’t do it over the voicemail or by not calling or failing to show up for a job. Meet the person face to face and politely explain why you think you may not be the source for them. There may be a ton of reasons; you only need one. She doesn’t match your customer profile, or you don’t feel you can Wow! him with the job, whatever. Keep your value judgments to yourself and avoid a hostile tone.

Offer Alternatives. Remember, if you fire your customer, after all the emotion is cleared that person is left without someone to perform the service that you once did. Refer someone else to them that you feel is a more appropriate match for their needs, such as another contractor who specializes in smaller work. You may just help the customer find a perfect match for his needs, someone better than you, and he’ll remember it and at a minimum not spread verbal poison about your business.

The customer isn’t always right, but it’s our job as providers of value to make them feel like they are always important. The process of firing mismatched customers is not pleasant for either side and is to be avoided at all costs. If it has to happen, use tact, courtesy, and professionalism and offer alternatives and keep your business name in good public standing.

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