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STREET SMARTS

Firing Customers

The idea of firing customers might sound like a sacrilege. But when they abuse your employees, refuse to pay their bills, and generally take advantage of your business, you're probably better off without them.

Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur.

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Fred is a lawyer I know who's had a successful practice for more than 25 years. When I ran into him recently, he told me he was making some changes. "I'm at a new stage of my life," he said. "From now on, I'm working only with people whom I respect and who respect me."

"That's a pretty bold statement," I said.

"I mean it," he said. "I just fired three clients. I sent them their files with a note saying, 'My firm will no longer represent you.' I'd had it with them. They were a constant aggravation. They didn't treat me right. They abused my office people. They took forever to pay their bills."

"How did they respond?" I asked.

"One of them called me up," Fred said. "He thought it was a joke. When I told him I was serious, he asked me why. I said, 'You really don't want to know.' He insisted that he did. 'OK,' I said, 'you're a miserable person. You make everyone's life miserable, but you're not going to ruin my life anymore.' He hung up on me. It felt so good. I wished I'd done it sooner."

There was a time when I would have thought Fred was crazy. I would have said, "So what if your customers are difficult? They pay your salary. They cover your bills. They make it possible for you to remain in business. It's too darn bad if you find them aggravating. Life is full of aggravations. Get over it. Besides, keeping an old account is a lot easier than finding a new one. When you fire a difficult customer, you're just trading one set of aggravations for another."

Not that I believed in the old saying about customers' always being right. That's baloney. But I'd long felt it was important to accommodate customers even when they were wrong -- for the good of the business. Lately, however, I've had a change of heart. The turning point came a few months ago, when I received a notice announcing that a fairly substantial customer was leaving my records-storage company.

Now, we don't lose many accounts, so I was curious to find out what had happened with this one. My people told me that the customer, a big law firm, had hired a new records manager, and she was impossible to deal with. Whenever she called, she would yell and scream and threaten our customer-service representatives. They'd be shaking by the time they got off the phone.


When customers abuse your employees, refuse to pay their bills, and generally take advantage of your business, you should let them go.


I wanted to see for myself what was going on, so I told my accounting people to send out the standard box-removal letter, detailing the charges for permanently taking boxes out of our warehouse. I then made sure that when the records manager responded, as she undoubtedly would, her call would come to me. Sure enough, she telephoned a couple of days later, and she was furious. "How dare you send us a letter like this?" she demanded. I explained that we were simply following the terms of the contract. "I don't care what's in the contract," she said. "This is outrageous, and you can't get away with it. Who do you think we are?"

I told her we'd be glad to sit down and discuss the situation. She responded by showering me with insults. There was nothing to discuss, she said. "You'll be hearing from one of the senior partners," she fumed.

"Fine," I said, "but I don't want you to call me again. I won't take your abuse on the phone, and -- starting today -- neither will my people." Afterward, I told my employees that they could hang up on the records manager if she called back and started to get nasty.

A senior partner did eventually contact me, and we had a pleasant-enough conversation. I asked him if he knew why his firm was dropping us. He said no but he'd investigate. When he got back to me, he indicated that the firm was reconsidering its decision. Would I be willing to meet with the office manager -- that is, the boss of the records manager -- who was in charge of such matters? I said, "Of course."

My sales manager, Brad, accompanied me to the meeting. The office manager turned out to be a lovely woman who said she'd like to work things out but there were a few issues we had to discuss. "Do they involve price and service?" I asked. She said yes. "We can definitely work those out," I said, "but I also have an issue." I pointed to the records manager, who was sitting next to her. "That woman has been abusive to my people," I said. At that, the records manager exploded. "Abusive!" she said. "Your people are incompetent. I've never seen such poor service."

"I'm not speaking to you," I said and turned back to the office manager. "I value all my customers very highly, but I really don't want your business unless you can assure me that this person will be civil on the telephone. If we've done something wrong, she doesn't have to be happy about it, but she can't scream and curse at my people."

Last updated: Jul 1, 2002

NORM BRODSKY | Columnist

Street Smarts columnist and senior contributing editor Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur who has founded and expanded six businesses.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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