There's probably nothing that cuts more quickly to the core of a small-business owner's sense of purpose than losing a client or customer. It's an eventuality, in almost every business, but it still puts the fear of failure right into the heart of most entrepreneurs.
Of course, a client firing us is one thing. But what happens if you need to fire your own customer?
While this can seem counterproductive—after all, you're trying to earn sales, not lose them—it's also sometimes the right thing for a business owner to do. To protect the people you employ and the business you've built, the best thing, and sometimes the only thing, you can do is to bring a customer relationship to its end.
To help you determine when that's the right course to take, let's look at three key triggers that should prompt you to bring a transaction with a client or customer to a swift and final close.
End Of The Line
Owning a small business doesn't mean continually trying to serve someone who's shown they can't be pleased. And that old business slogan—the customer is always right—well, that's only accurate some of the time.
Whether you're handling merchandise or creating ads, writing copy or designing a new house, there's a fine line between difficult customers and toxic ones. Knowing where to draw that line is a skill you can learn. Here are three typical situations that should start you thinking about making your endgame moves.
1. Abusive behavior. When a client's curses and insults start to fly, your next moves become critical. First, end the abusive conversation swiftly. Empower your employees to do the same. As Debra Ellis of Wilson & Ellis Consulting points out, "Expecting your service team to take undeserved punishment increases stress and reduces morale."
Before such damage can spread, a remedial move is to set out the rules of interaction with the problematic customer one last time, and then make it clear that the next incident will result in you terminating transactions once and for all.
2. Stranded without tools. When your customer places demands upon you or your staff that they then don't provide the needed materials to satisfy, it can leave you feeling stranded. For instance, you can't make someone's website copy sing if you can't get access to the information your customer wants you to include in it, and you can't start pouring concrete until your client signs off on the blueprints. Worse, dealing with complaints from customers about your lack of results in these situations puts you at a painful kind of crossroads.
At a certain point, you can agree to work with a customer who doesn't cooperate but takes the blame for the slow progress. Or you can stick with a complaint-prone client but one who gives you what you need. But you can't keep working with a customer who both complains and fails to supply you with materials to get the job done.
3. Excessive workflow disruption. You want to be there when a customer or client calls, and you want to provide them with the sense that their project is under your best care and control, but sometimes a situation spirals out of hand. Too many calls per day, expectations that you'll drop all other deadlines for their job, and just plain ignoring the fact that sudden schedule changes topple balanced workflows: These are all steps along the road to a client relationship that has to end.
The Final Word
When the time comes to fire your customer, what exactly should you do?
Patricia Schaefer, a staff writer at Business Know-How, recommends a professional approach. "Without placing blame or fault, explain that you feel he or she would be served better by going elsewhere, that you're just not the right fit for them," Schaefer writes. "Give a referral, if possible, to another provider."
From there, start to incorporate what you've learned into the way you take on clients and customers going forward. Ask questions about workflow and deliverables, and where you'll get the data and materials you'll need to complete the required work. Be sure to ask for references to a previous or current client.
With experience, you should be able to detect some of these problem spots before you find yourself en route to them again. In the end, you'll fire less and invoice more: That's the goal of a healthy customer roster, for any small-business owner.
Freelance writer James O'Brien, PhD, covers business, technology, travel, food, wine, home improvement, writing and news. He's the author of a new book on writing, The Indie Writer's Survival Guide.
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