Do You Need to Fire Your Customer?

I’m not sure how many of you out there in the world have problem clients, but I think it’s fairly common.  You know these types; highly demanding, emotional, and always prone to missing or inaccurate information on their jobs.  Just one or two of their orders in house can wreck your production schedule fairly quickly.  After you hang up the phone and cry into your hands you have to ask yourself if doing business with them is really worth the hassle.  (Previously I listed ten annoying characteristics

That’s actually the point of this article, which is to measure if it’s worth it, and what potentially to do about it.  Some points, like stress level or the emotional toll dealing with jerks induces, may be hard to quantify.  Here are some thoughts:

  1. Start keeping a diary.  No, not the kind with the clasp and the pink pony on the cover.  Just fire up a Word document and start jotting down some notes about each incident that leaves you rattled.  Be fair, but accurate.  Include work order and purchase order numbers for reference.  Be sure to include how you resolved the challenge.  Leave out your feelings…just stick to the facts.
  2. Make copies of their purchase orders and add notes to them regarding missing information, inaccurate details, or the problems that you have to resolve.  Throw these in a folder each time.  If this is easier than a diary, just do this.  Don’t look for perfection; you are just gathering the facts like a detective.
  3. Keep a time log for the extra work that it takes to resolve the challenge for your customer.  With each incident, record the extra minutes it takes to ask for the art approval again, remind them to send in the inventory, e-mail them the same information you sent them yesterday, correct information from their PO, change the quantities in your system as they suddenly now need 5 more mediums, overtime needed to complete that last minute emergency…you get the idea.  Quantify your time and pain.

Keep doing that for a week or a month.  At the end of the time period, calmly and with a neutral perspective review your diary, folder and time log.  If you need to bring in other staff members that handle the account, that’s fine.  Don’t make this turn into an angry bitch session.  Your goal is to just review the extra work it takes to process the orders and think of ways to resolve the challenge.  Keep it positive.

Any patterns emerge?  Maybe the challenge only revolves around one particular type of order.  Maybe it’s the way the customer refers to previous orders or their notes (or lack thereof).  Hopefully your research will allow you discover your pain points, and address the issue.  When doing this with your client here are some ideas: 

  1. Start small.  People fear change, and getting a customer to break a habit is tough.  Make it easy for them if you can and suggest something that will work right out of the gate. 
  2. Approach any suggestions for change in a non-threatening, polite and friendly way.  “Hey Susie, if you include the item number on your PO’s I can get them in the system immediately so your orders will be scheduled faster.”  See if suggesting what you need will resolve the problem for you.
  3. Punish or Reward them.  Depending on the challenge, maybe the answer is to add a fee to cover the extra transaction costs of constantly haranguing them for the information and correcting their PO’s.  Or, you could try the carrot and maybe give them a free screen or something for doing it right.  It’s kind of like how you deal with your kids and getting them to clean their room.  If one thing won’t work, try another.
  4. Make it hard for them to fail.  One answer could be an ordering system that automatically won’t let you proceed until the information is filled out.  You’ve probably had experiences with this when ordering or registering online for something.  What technology can help you alleviate the problem?  Have you thought of directing your clients to an online process, .pdf form that they have to fill out, or maybe even a simple form that they can fill out a fax in to you?  The goal is to give them a tool.
  5. Push back…politely.  Good customer service reps won’t tolerate someone handing them a mess to enter.  Part of their job is to train the client to send in what they need.  The trick is to do it in a fun and friendly way that gets results.
  6. Get some support.  Look at your data.  Chances are, the problem isn’t with EVERYONE at a particular company, but it may be isolated with just one individual that has some questionable work habits.  (I’ll bet you know who I am talking about)  Gather your information and suggest a conference call or meeting with their supervisor and discuss what you need to work more efficiently.  If you do this, don’t talk in generalities and be very specific about what you require.  Try to approach the individual in question first, as you could have some relationship challenges with them in the future if you play this card too early.

One thing is for certain, your problem clients will make your superstar clients that much more attractive.  These are the folks and companies that do everything right, and are a breeze to work with.  I’ve often wondered why some customers are the best, and some are the worst.  In the end though, you really have three options when dealing with these situations – put up with their drama, resolve the challenge and make it better somehow, or fire your client.

If you need help with a particular customer, I’d love to hear about it.  Drop a comment below or shoot me an e-mail at  You’re not in this alone!!


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