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Adii Pienaar

Now working on Receiptful. Co-Founder & ex-CEO of WooThemes. Author of Brandiing. New Dad. Ex-Rockstar.

Pulling The Plug on Bad Customers

The title to this post probably sounds a little cynical, considering the well-travelled business mantra that “the customer is always right”, but I’d really like to challenge that point of view in the business environment.

As a company grows, the user- / customer-base normally grows as well and the increased number of people that requires your attention, leads to added strain on your customer service functions. So during this growth period, it is important to streamline one’s policies & activities in such a way to allow you to scale the energy & resources required to service an ever-expanding number of customers.

What I’ve found though, is that some customers are just simply more difficult than others, which is probably an indication of the varying personalities that one encounters in business. This isn’t a problem in itself, since most of the “difficult” customers actually have valid points and they just require a little more attention than average to feel as happy with your company as the “easier” customers. But even though I can objectively say that, I have also encountered the type of customer that is being difficult purely because they want to be difficult. It is also this kind of customer that simply doesn’t trust your company from the get-go, calls of your actions into question and becomes offensive & insulting when they don’t receive an e-mail response within 5 minutes (if this seems like I’m exaggerating; I’m not).

Pulling The Plug

I recently made the call with a customer that I just wasn’t interested in working with them anymore, after they had become extremely insulting and called my character into question. Whilst I’m always willing to deal with any seemingly difficult situation on merit, I draw the line when it becomes unprofessional, as that is normally a clear indication that someone is being difficult purely for the sake of being difficult.

So what did I do? I simply recommended a competitor’s product instead, refunded the customer’s purchase and noted that I don’t think it would be possible to continue a professional relationship in this regard.

This may be a tad radical, but I’m not telling the full story here obviously. Instead I’d like to point out that I was trying to avoid a 20/80 situation whereby the 20% of customers who are difficult will drain 80% of the energy & resources devoted to customer support. I’m not suggesting an exclusive approach here whereby only the “easy” customers gets your attention, but I am suggesting that your good customers should receive the same amount of attention.

By eliminating the odd (really) bad customer, you are thus freeing up resources to invest in your best customers who don’t necessarily request / demand customer service, but are actually most worthy of your time.

“Right to Admission”

Ultimately this comes down to the standard “supply & demand” argument, whereby just as much as a customer may choose a company, a company may also choose its customers. Service companies regularly chooses which clients they’d like to work with, so why shouldn’t a retailer be able to do the same? Just because you are selling to the general public, you don’t necessarily need to accept every single customer as your customer and even less do you need to accept them being difficult without rational reason.

This however becomes more complex when you consider how much customer service resources is spent entertaining difficult & irrational customers; so this behaviour is almost endorsed in a way where companies are saying “it’s okay sir / madam, you can be irrational and we’ll offer you the best customer service available and make you feel better”. To that, I’d like to say: Bullshit!

Back to supply & demand. When customers purchase from a company, they enter into an implicit sales agreement whereby they agree that they are paying X and in return they receive Y. That’s the bottom line; it’s normal supply & demand. Customer service operates on a different level (probably marketing and / or public relations), which means that no customer is *entitled* to being difficult and even less should they be allowed to demand a company dealing with their irrational / offensive / unprofessional behaviour.

If the company handles those situations really well, then kudo’s to them. But when you’re looking to scale a business, you’re gonna find that you can’t entertain 100’s or 1000’s of difficult customers every day, unless you increase your overhead expenditure on support resources significantly.

So I’d throw my hat into the ring for companies to stop entertaining difficult, irrational customer behaviour and instead fight fire with fire in an objective & professional manner. The sooner that customers realize that the company-customer relationship is a two-way street, with equal “power-sharing” amongst the parties, the sooner we’ll get rid of difficult clients.

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