When a Customer Is Not Worthy

As business owners and employees of businesses, we all work diligently to acquire prospects, qualify leads and convert customers, but sometimes we need to stop and consider whether a particular person or company is worthy of our efforts. It makes our constituents feel appreciated and empowered when we treat them well and expend effort to develop the relationship, but

As business owners and employees of businesses, we all work diligently to acquire prospects, qualify leads and convert customers, but sometimes we need to stop and consider whether a particular person or company is worthy of our efforts.

It makes our constituents feel appreciated and empowered when we treat them well and expend effort to develop the relationship, but in some cases that empowerment can go to one of their heads and lead the person to behave in a manner not conducive to a healthy relationship.

There have been a number of instances over the years where I’ve needed to ask prospective or current customers to take their business elsewhere. While this is never a pleasant conversation, it can be critical in ensuring your company remains profitable, your employees remain appreciated and happy, and you remain sane. The best way to approach this conversation is with civility and a calm tone.

More often than not, an unhappy customer will vent their frustration on an underling with the assumption the person is unprepared to manage the onslaught. Annoyed customers will attack in a way they believes will result in a resolution favoring them—sometimes greatly and to the detriment of the employee’s wellbeing and the company’s profitability. We’re all able to take a loss every now and then to satisfy an unhappy customer, but when you have a repeat offender (customer), it’s time to step in.

Every employee and contractor in my organization knows they are never expected to submit to a venting, complaining or abusive customer—period. The employee’s response is mandatory and simple, “Please hold and I will have our manager help you.” From there, I am quick to set the ground rules as I take over the call. I will listen to the customer politely and allow that person to give voice to their entire complaint, but they may not scream, call names or be uncivil in any manner. If they are, I will hang up. I will continue to hang up each time the person calls back until they accept and adhere to the rules of this engagement (to date, it hasn’t gone beyond three hang ups).

Beyond this, I make it clear I am fully responsible for my team’s actions and responses, and we will not engage in a bashing of a personal nature. I will not side with the complainant against my team, but I will be empathetic to the customer’s plight and go to great lengths to find a resolution suitable to the situation—for as long as we can continue to have a professional, if not amicable, discussion.

For plaintiffs who cannot accept and follow the ground rules, it’s even simpler: “I’m sorry we did not meet your expectations, here is the phone number to another company providing this product/service. We’re confident you will be happier elsewhere.”

This type of response shifts the power from the complaining customer to the employee and fosters a better relationship between you and the person with whom you work every day instead of a customer whose value is far less. Yes, some customers have great monetary worth, and for those you will exert additional effort to resolve the situation before sending them on their way, but for most small businesses, individual customers have a smaller overall value than a dedicated employee.

With that said, there are ways for a customer to complain without aggressive discourse—those are the customers we want to please, keep, and reward—and for those, it’s best to keep the employee in the discussion. These are the customers whom I prefer to foster and benefit, even at a monetary loss to the company. They often turn out to be long-term, repeat customers because we have created an atmosphere of loyalty by tending to their concerns as a team. (Why would we allow an abusive customer to receive a more beneficial resolution than a kind, calm customer who truly wishes to resolve the condition?)

Sometimes customers are unworthy in other manners. We recently spent quite some time reviewing a lead’s current drip-marketing campaign, only to come to the conclusion we really couldn’t add enough value to their current process to make hiring our company beneficial to them. In this situation, we fired the customer before we were hired, and we were quite frank about why. I don’t know how this response was truly received by the customer; they did seem to be happy with our honesty. If I were on the receiving end of this conversation, I would rather have a company tell me genuinely they cannot help me than to have them take my money for months/years and be no wiser for the engagement—but not everyone thinks like I do. (Thankfully.)

In many ways, email marketing has cultivated an atmosphere allowing customers to be more unhappy and more quickly. The anonymity of email makes marketers seem less like a company of people here to serve their needs and more like a faceless organization poised to aggravate them. Gone are phone calls that allowed us to connect with at least a modicum human interaction, in their place we have electronic communications sent to thousands of people all at once. This is why personalization can be so important to you and to the recipient. Adding a bit or a lot of personalization warms the tone and the relationship. It reminds the receiver, you are a company of people who care about their success. It will also help lay a foundation of civility if a divorce is imminent.

If you must fire an email customer, don’t fire by email. Pick up the phone, set the ground rules, and be polite and professional. It’s the least you can do. You may not be able to salvage the relationship, but you’re less likely to leave them with a terrible last impression.