How to Give Bad Customers the Pink Slip

We all aspire to have customers we love and who love us, customers who pay their bills on time, who have appropriate expectations of our products and services, who consider us a partner and take our advice. And who, not incidentally, place large orders with us on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, we all have troublesome customers who take up too much of our time and energy. We spend an inordinate amount of time on their demands and continue to be aggravated by them (and try not to show it). What we should do is fire them.

Like the rest of us, you probably have many excuses for not firing these bad customers. After all, they’re paying their bills — or are they? They only call five times a day now, where they used to call 10 times. And they just placed another order, though the discount they demanded prevents us from making our margin.

Just imagine if you could fire your most troublesome customers and use the time you were spending on them to nurture and grow your good and great customers. You could even go out and find new customers.

Most of your customers want to have win-win relationships with their vendors. Some may not know they’re being troublesome. Clearly explaining your concerns will very likely facilitate adjustments. Most of your customers don’t want to see you go out of business, and if you explain that, like them, you need to make a certain margin on your sales, they may be more understanding of the price you’re charging.

Certainly the managers may not know that five calls a day from their staff to your office is too many. They might suggest to their staff that they list their questions and call once a day. There may be some problem you’re unaware of that could be easily fixed. Communicating with the customer may help solve their problem, inadvertently solving yours.

If the time has come to deal with this problem, here are my suggested steps:


  1. Make a list of the customers you’d like to fire.
  2. Next to each customer, write down what they would have to do to move from your “Want to fire list” to your “Great customer” list.
  3. Figure out a way to communicate this information to the appropriate people at that company.
  4. Schedule a meeting with the appropriate people, clearly stating that the purpose of the meeting is to improve your relationship and the service you provide.
  5. Communicate your concerns one at a time and ask your customer to help you come up with solutions. Get these solutions in writing and be sure they’re communicated to the proper individuals. Now move this customer to your “good” or “great” list. If not, go to step 6.
  6. If the customer doesn’t see your concerns as a problem and is unwilling to make changes, end the conversation with something like, “We appreciate your past business and are very sorry we won’t be able to work together in the future. This is the last order we’ll complete and we wish you much success.”If by taking these steps you’re concerned that your sales numbers will drop, remember you’ll have the time you take away from a troublesome customer to grow a “good” or “great” customer, or find new ones. Also keep in mind that your troublesome customer can turn into a great one with win-win communication. Just be sure you have a plan to approach each customer on your troublesome list and communicate your concerns clearly. You might be pleasantly surprised!                                                                                                                                     Vistage Associate Alice R. Heiman is president of ARH Consulting, LLC, a sales consulting and sales management firm based in Reno, Nev.

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