Why Sometimes You Need to Fire Your Customers

What It’s Costing You to Serve Everyone as if There’s No Limit

If you’ve ever worked in retail—and even if you haven’t—you’ve probably heard the phrase, “the customer is always right.” But just because you’ve heard it doesn’t make it true.

My daughter Megan enjoys the BBC show, Mr. Selfridge, about pioneering retailer Jeremy Selfridge. Supposedly, he was one of the people to popularize the phrase that still rings in our ears all these years later in just about every sphere of business.

No, the Customer Is Not Always Right

I understand where this idea comes from. And I’m on record saying customer service is one of the most important forms of marketing today. But we all know we can overspend a marketing budget, right?

Saying the customer is always right is even worse. It’s like saying there is no budget. You don’t need me to tell you how that can play out. There are limits to customer service.

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I’m remembering one customer in particular I had to fire a few years ago. Despite a heroic effort on the part of my team, we didn’t feel as though we could make him happy. So, we made a refund and said goodbye. And the truth is that a lot of businesses could find relief in doing the same thing.

What Pleasing Everyone Is Costing You

In my experience, there are three very good reasons you sometimes must fire your customers:

  1. They drain you and your team. Eventually serving customers costs your team more than they signed up for—maybe even more than you signed up for. Counterintuitive as it might seem, for a business to succeed it’s essential to prioritize not your customers, but your team.

    When we get that backwards, we overburden our people with customer demands and create burnout and turnover. Suddenly, you’re hemorrhaging talent and your business suffers. Bad deal.

  2. They keep you from serving the rest of your customers. The next reason is just a question of bandwidth. When certain customers keep returning not to purchase, but to remedy this or that perceived problem you have less resources to serve the rest of your customers.

    Here’s a little insight about human nature, and feel free to pass this one around: Some people can’t be helped. You know them when they show up. Everything is a problem. Nothing is right. Satisfaction is a foreign country. Don’t fail the rest of your customers by getting bogged down with this one. Cut your losses and move on.

  3. They make you hate going to work. The older I get, the more this matters to me. It’s a big deal to everyone I work with. We love our work. We love getting to create and help people. The last thing we want is for someone to come suck the joy out of it for us.

    If you’ve served someone like this, you know the drill. You start groaning when you see their phone number, their email, their face. It’s like a little part of you dies every time they contact you. Life is too short for that. Good customer service is not synonymous with masochism.

Let’s Be Clear

Now, just to make sure everybody is tracking with me, here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that you can be bad to your customers. I am not saying that it is wise to disappoint your customers. I am not saying that it is prudent to treat customer relations as if it doesn’t matter.

What I am saying is this. You can’t please everyone. And when you can’t please someone, you have to do the math. Are they making it difficult on your business, your team, or the rest of your customers?

If that’s happening, I say it’s time to cut the cord and find another customer.

Question: What’s your worst customer service story?

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