Customers that Make Small Business Owners Scream

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The ScreamHave you ever had that customer that you intentionally neglected hoping that they would fire your small business?

Or maybe you just have that one customer that seems to never be satisfied no matter how hard you try to please them?

No, then this post is not for you – you can stop reading here.

For the rest of us, I am sure the image of someone came quickly to mind.  If we are lucky there is only one, but misery loves company so it is likely that there are a few.  Hopefully, there are not so many that you start feeling like you’re the man in the Edvard Munch painting, “The Scream.”

The sad thing is that I meet small business entrepreneurs all the time that feel this way.  Worse yet, they fail to realize that they are in total control.  They are actually asking for these types of customers.

Thank You Sir.  May I Have Another?

What do I mean?  Well, first of all, remember that it is YOUR business.  Many small business owners put up the “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” sign, but seldom exercise that right.

One critical mistake that many entrepreneurs make is that they don’t define what their target customer looks like.  This is a critical part of your business plan because it affects many parts of your business, but most entrepreneurs skip this step or it exists only as a thought in their head.

The result is that they accept any customer that walks in the door as long as they can pay (and many times they forget to check that).  They are so grateful just to have a customer, especially when starting out, that they shower them with attention.

What if that person turns out to be one of those customers that drive you crazy?  You know the ones I am talking about.  The customer that …

  • is never satisfied
  • always wants to quarrel over price
  • constantly “pops in” or calls you for free advice/support/samples
  • can never seem to pay their invoice

Please Do Not Feed The Bears

There’s a reason that we are told not to feed the bears, but many small business owners unwittingly do so.  There are two problems with feeding bears.

First, they tend to bring their friends back with them.

What started out as just scraps quickly becomes you raiding the cupboard for more food and then shopping for the bears.  Unwanted customers can quickly suck the life out of your business by consuming your time and resources.

Second, bears do not take being told “No” very well.

If you just ignore them they will start rummaging through your stuff to find their own meals.  If you poke them with a stick they could attack you and scare away everyone in the vicinity.  The wrong customers seldom take the hint to move on, and if you ask them to leave they may try to inflict as much damage as possible to your reputation.

The Customer is NOT Always Right

Why do small business owners let it get this far?  Primarily because we are afraid to lose customers.  We are trained to always increase our customer base.  It does not come naturally to us to fire our customers.

The other thing that we have been led to believe is that the customer is always right.  I was reading a post by Richard Matthews this week called, “The Ten Things I HATE Most!” Number five on his list was “I hate pretending the customer is right!”  Here was my response:

Herb Kelleher agrees, as this passage from Nuts! the excellent book about Southwest Airlines shows:

Herb Kelleher [...] makes it clear that his employees come first — even if it means dismissing customers. But aren’t customers always right? “No, they are not,” Kelleher snaps. “And I think that’s one of the biggest betrayals of employees a boss can possibly commit. The customer is sometimes wrong. We don’t carry those sorts of customers. We write to them and say, ‘Fly somebody else. Don’t abuse our people.’”

I wholeheartedly agree with Herb.  When you decided to become an entrepreneur, did you intend to attract these customers?  No!  Why should you put up with them now then?

Silencing the Screams

Okay, so how do we quiet the screams?  In honor of Halloween, how do we vanquish the vampires that would suck the lifeblood out of our small business?

  • Don’t invite them.  Be selective and only accept customers that fit  your customer profile.
  • Provide a written quote up front that lists the full scope of the agreement and the price.
  • Suggest a billable meeting or support plan to “pop in” and telephone abusers.
  • Write up change orders on any additional work to satisfy the customer.
    • Set the expectation that the customer must pay for changes they request.
    • You can always provide a credit, but inform the customer it is a one time offer.
  • Develop a written credit policy.
    • Request a deposit or up front payments from problem customers.
    • Collect credit application and run credit report on larger customers.

Finally, always remember that it is your business.  The above suggestions will help prevent these customers, but ultimately it is up to you to end the relationship.

Article by

Brad's Big Feet Marketing helps people on a limited budget enlarge their online footprint using blogging & social media. His other blog, Marketplace Christianity, examines faith's role in how we earn and spend money.

Brad has written 95 awesome articles for us at Bradley A Harmon

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Dana@Online Knowledge October 27, 2009 at 2:33 am

{Why do small business owners let it get this far? Primarily because we are afraid to lose customers. We are trained to always increase our customer base. It does not come naturally to us to fire our customers.}

I once hear a spirtual leader said ” you will lose more if you afraid to lose it.” I think this said match with context that you want to say in that i quote.

Reply

Brad Harmon October 27, 2009 at 8:07 am

Wow, that is so true Dana. By not dealing with these types of customers we lose time and energy that we could be spending on great customers or acquiring great customers. So we truly do lose more because we are afraid to lose these bad apples.

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eenrockstar October 27, 2009 at 9:02 am

I thought customer is always right but we as a businessman just pretending to be kind towards them.. :D

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Brad Harmon October 27, 2009 at 3:54 pm

lol … I think there are a lot of people who think that way. They continue to fake it with bad customers rather than cut the ties and seek out good ones.

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jimhardin October 27, 2009 at 8:09 pm

Brad I like your point. I have worked in a customer service role before,like we all have, and I always remember that my boss always told me that the customer is always right and I have to admit that I didn't like that way of thinking. But who was I to say I was just a kid at the time just starting out working so I just went along with it. But seriously some customers really treat the employees like garbage and they think they own the business when they walk in the door. Well they are not always right! Sure we should treat everyone with respect, but if they are not treating me with respect then who needs them. There are plenty of customers out there that would like to come to the business. Some customers are just never happy.
Great post Brad! it made me think

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Brad Harmon October 27, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Jim,

Thanks for sharing your experience. I wish it was a rare story, but it happens every day in business after business.

You make some great points that I think we need to remember:
#1 Yes, we should always treat our customers with respect.
#2 There are other customers that would love to do business with us.
#3 If you have employees then continuing to serve bad customers kills morale.

Thanks for the comments.

Brad

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Bradley J. Moore October 28, 2009 at 4:43 am

Hey Brad – Great Blog!! Thanks for visiting mine, and I will certainly come back to visit yours!
(Looks like you could give me quite a few tips for juicing up my site, too)
I agree about being selective with customers will enhance our performance. I would also suggest a customer profitability analysis, where you evaluate the top and bottom customers in terms of their cost per sale and their profitability of relationship. That is usually pretty eye opening.

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Brad Harmon October 28, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Bradley,

Thanks! The Customer Profitability Analysis sounds like a great idea for a blog post. Have you already done one on it? If so, will you please post the link?

Brad

P.S. I love the camel being lifted by the crane on your blog header.

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Michael Lindsay October 29, 2009 at 7:38 am

While I certainly understand your point, you need to understand the other side. I have approximately 125 part time (mostly teenage) employees. If I go along with the fact that “the customer is NOT always right” in a short amount of time, I'd have NO customers left. Customers have to be treated with respect and dignity. While we certainly don't allow customers to abuse our employees, we must respect them. Now, I understand that my industry (retail grocery) may be different from many types of “small business” because of the sheer number of customers that we have walk through the doors, so this may be a little industry specific.

I, for one, and not willing to give up the “generalization” that, “The customer is always right”

Michael

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Brad Harmon October 29, 2009 at 9:03 am

Michael,

I am probably guilty of focusing too much on the service industry when I think of the small business customer. This certainly has the potential to be more of a problem with the service industry, or maybe it is just easier to fix in the service industry?

Let's face it. As a whole, teenagers and young adults entering the workforce over the past two decades have had less and less of the traditional work ethic and customer service mentality than generations before them. That's not to say that there are none, but it is becoming a rarity.

The sad thing is that our customers are also becoming less honest, less patient, and more litigious. It's not the best combination of factors to tell our employees that the customer is not always right. So what do we do?

You probably have a few customers that come to mind (if you don't then your employees do) that when they come into your grocery store you just know there is going to be something they find that they do not like. Why? Because it is the same every trip.

They are not abusive to your employees, but perhaps they constantly complain in the check out line because there is a line, always have a product that mysteriously appeared under a sale sign five aisles over, or tell anyone that will listen how expensive your prices are. I've often wanted to tell the person in the check out line with me to “chill out” or more honestly “shut up.”

There is an impact on your employee's morale, and the morale of other customers, from these people. When my wife shops at Wal-mart, she rarely complains about the employees, but it is the other shoppers that irritates her every shopping trip. I can only imagine how the employees feel.

I think there are a few questions we have to ask ourselves. Are these the customers that you intend to attract? Why are you attracting them? What impact on morale do I send to my employees by saying that these customers too are always right? On my other customers? What would be the impact if I asked this customer not to come back?

I have not worked retail since I put myself through college so I do not have that day-to-day experience with it anymore. Maybe I am being too theoretical in my approach? Perhaps these types of customers are now the norm instead of the exception? I can tell you from my personal shopping experience that this seems to be true.

What do you think Michael?

Brad

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Brad Harmon November 4, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Absolutely! We are always to show love and compassion. Even when the customer is wrong, and we do not wish to have them as customers, we must still treat them this way. Good point.

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Martin November 5, 2009 at 8:40 am

It doesn't only happen in small businesses…

I was a customer service department manager more than 15 years ago in what is now a global mobile communications company.

A huge portion of my time was spent defending people in my department from the MD who received complaint letters from customers and immediately assumed one of my people had screwed up.

He thought nothing of threatening the individuals concerned, which was despicable behaviour in itself – corporate bullying at its worst.

Although they were my team (so some may consider me biased!) the supervisors and team leaders who reported to me were incredibly dedicated to their job but after a year or so of this MD most of them were nervous wrecks.

I eventually left after the MD stormed into my office one day, slamming the door so hard that the windows shook, and screamed at me for about 10 minutes about my performance and the performance of my team.

I handed in my notice the next day with my only regret being that the team wouldn't have protection going forward. But by then it was affecting my health – definitely time to get out.

I had a small smidgeon of satisfaction when the MD tried once or twice to persuade me to stay, which I naturally refused.

I'm not sure what happened after I left, but the customer is most definitely not always right.

However, when they (the customer) find a manager (at whatever level) who believes they are, and who takes the customer's word over the customer service staff's (even when everything is tracked by the system), they are given incredible emotional power – which is a recipe for disaster.

Martin.

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Brad Harmon November 5, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Martin,

It sounds like your managing director (MD) was definitely guilty of feeding the bears. This is a great example of how these customers and policies affect the morale of your workforce. I've seen managers that thought nothing of losing a great employee, that they had spent thousands of dollars and years training, to save a $20 sale.

Thanks for sharing your experience.

Brad

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