Surely you have heard the phrase “The customer is always right”. Pioneering and successful retailers in the early 1900s such as Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridge’s department store in London and Marshall Field of Marshal Fields department stores in the U.S., helped to popularize this ideal. This concept of focusing positively on the customer was in sharp contrast to the prevailing attitude in business of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware), as well as a start to differentiating one’s company in an industry with growing competition. These retailing leaders advocated that customer complaints should be treated seriously so that the customer would not feel cheated or deceived…which oftentimes occurred. The customer should feel special and have their concern fixed. By doing so, the retailer would therefore be more likely to see return business from satisfied customers.
While this strategy had merit and worked at the time, the philosophy and true meaning have been simplified and warped over the years to mean, “I, as the customer, know that I will get my way no matter how outrageous it is, because I am always right”. While not everyone has taken this jaded attitude, be assured that it is alive and kicking. Problem customers tend to fall into these general categories:
- Taking undo advantage
- Driving off other customers
- Time suckers
- Attention getters – making scenes, purposefully talking too loudly
You’ll notice that no category exists for “just plain annoying”. As a manager or business owner, you will have to determine where the boundaries are for the grey area of a customer just being annoying, and when s/he transitions to a candidate for firing. Yes, you can legally fire a client just as long as it’s not based on discrimination of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and so on. As a manager or business owner, your best interest lies with keeping as many customers as possible, however, when a problem customer begins costing you more than you are gaining from him or her, consider cutting ties.
For most circumstances, I personally like the idea of three strikes. First, talk to said customer professionally and express your concerns, along with stating that, while you want to continue doing business, you will not do so if X behavior continues. If a second infringement happens, tell said customer more sternly that you will not conduct business with him/her if it happens again. Third infraction is termination with a simple explanation of “We’ve discussed this on two prior occasions. It appears my company is no longer able to fulfill your needs and therefore we will no longer be doing business.” Keeping the matter professional, short, and without apologies is usually best.
As for any concerns about negative word of mouth (WOM) from a fired customer hurting your business, let me address this with a few thoughts. To begin, I’ve read so many statistics on how fast word of mouth spreads, with positive vs negative, social media vs face-to-face, etc. that it’s mind-boggling. So let’s examine this from a different standpoint. First, what are the chances that a fired customer will share the story in the first place? If you were asked to leave an establishment for bad behavior, would you tell anyone?
Secondly, let’s say our customer does share his/her tale so consider this. If one bad customer tells a handful of friends about their experience, even if it is skewed in his/her favor, how much damage will it really do to you? Hopefully you’ve got enough positive marketing and WOM out already to minimize or negate this one person’s opinion. And if not, do you really want friends of a problem customer coming in? What if they are also problems?
Finally, what if our customer files a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (BBB)? If you’ve handled the matter professionally and objectively from the beginning, then don’t sweat it. The BBB investigates these matters and, in my experience, is fair. Enough said. My point with all this is that business owners and managers should focus on providing quality goods and service without worrying about upsetting a small, trouble-making minority that is distracting from it. It is OK to not do business with problematic customers, just as you would choose to end a business relationship with an unreliable or unethical business partner. They both cost more than they contribute to your business and should be dealt with professionally to move your business forward and cater to the good customers that deserve your attention.