As a telecom consulting firm we’ve had a lot of clients over the years. The last time I counted we have worked with over 800 companies. I was just thinking the other day about something that happened after we had been in business for a few years.
I had a client who had always been a pain to work with personally. He was irascible and constantly argued with me over work product. But that never bothered me too much because sometimes in his grumpy way he made very good points – and he always paid his bills on time.
But one day I walked into the office and he was on the phone with my office manager and he was yelling at her over the phone in a very abusive way. She put the call on the speaker and I heard him cursing and ranting and screaming at her. I had the call transferred into my office and I told him he was fired. This stunned him and he asked what this meant for the work we were doing for him, and my response was that we wouldn’t bill him for anything we had done but we were also not going to finish what we were working on.
I think I leapt up four notches that day on the boss scale because nobody in the office liked working with this particular client and they were thrilled to find out that I had their backs. But that day taught me a valuable lesson – that sometimes it’s okay sometimes to fire a customer. Sometimes the money they pay you is just not worth the aggravation. Over the years I’ve fired a few more clients, but luckily most of my clients are a pleasure to work with.
I’ve carried that same message to my clients. When I ask, almost every one of my clients has a few customers that nobody at the company likes to work with. These customers may be abusive, or impossible to please, or are the ones that always want adjustments to their billing for some perceived wrong.
It’s generally a novel concept to my clients when I tell them that it’s okay to fire such customers. A few of them have gone to their staffs after I put the idea in their head to ask how many customers they perceive to be hard to work with. It’s generally a small number, but universally every customer service rep and field technician will make the same short list of problem customers.
Some of my clients have then fired these customers. Others have taken the approach of calling these customers and warning them that their behavior will no longer be tolerated. In both cases I’ve been told that this has resulted in a huge morale booster at the company. Contrary to the popular maxim, the customer is not always right. Your employees should not have to take abuse as part of their job and they will greatly appreciate you making their life easier.
This is not an easy decision because small companies often emphasize the fact that they need every possible customer in order to thrive and survive. So it’s a question of weighing the revenue from a handful of problem customers against company harmony and a good workplace environment.
You also have to be careful not to take this to the opposite extreme. Your employees cannot feel empowered that you will fire anybody who disagrees with them, because that can foster bad behavior on behalf of your staff. But I don’t think it’s hard to identify the really bad apples, and if you do this the right way it’s another way to make your company a better place to work.