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When Good Customers Go Bad

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Sooner or later, it happens to every business owner. A customer, that you thought was really great because they praised and flattered you, has suddenly turned into the most difficult customer you have. If it's not a matter of quality-control on your part, then it may simply be that your "good customer" isn't as easy to work with as you thought. Maybe they don't pay their bills on time, and you have to chase them down. Or they're always late for their appointments, and expect you to be late for your next customer. Sometimes, it's just that their personality is so needy, draining, or obnoxious that you just can't take it anymore. As a business owner, you spend a lot of time & energy in learning how to attract and keep customers. But how do you handle it when it's time to say good-bye?

Know your personal & professional boundaries

On a social level, personal boundaries are the bottom-line standard of what you are willing to tolerate from others. You may run a service business, but does not mean you are less important than your customer. Even if your profession involves working with people that have known emotional issues, it does not mean that they have license to act them out on you.

Personal boundaries need to be drawn when someone is abusive, rude, or consistently taking advantage of you. If you don't teach others how to respect you, then you won't feel good about yourself. Never compromise your dignity because you're desperate for more business.

Professional boundaries are the business policies you need to make your business run smoothly. That includes things like your terms of sale, refund/exchange agreements, appointment cancellation policies, etc. Ideally, these should be in writing so that new customers know what the rules are. In actuality, most business owners allow for some flexibility and occasional exceptions. But if you've already done that for a difficult customer, it may be time to strictly enforce your policies. At that point, it's really about setting a professional boundary that says, "We either do business in a way that works for me or we don't do business at all."

Stand up for yourself

Usually, the social pressure to be accommodating falls on the business owner. After all, if you want someone's business, then a "customer is always right" attitude will encourage repeat business. For the most part, I agree with that approach. Excellent customer service programs need to be created and maintained by you. Similarly, the work of setting and enforcing personal & professional boundaries ALSO needs to be done by you. It's not fair to expect your customers to simply know better. You've got to communicate what your standards are, in a way that is clear, respectful, and effective.

If you've got a customer relationship that is causing you worry and upset due to something that a particular customer is doing (or not doing) then you need to be honest with them. If you can address the problem early, it will be much easier to say it with a smile and hopefully nip it in the bud. If you let the problem build and get worse, or the offense is just too upsetting to repair, then it might be time to "fire" your customer.

Make a clean break

Once you've decided that it's time to refuse to work with a customer, it's best to get it over with as quickly as possible. If something really awful has happened, you may need to do it on the spot. But in any case, you'll want to protect your professional reputation by handling it as calmly and cleanly as possible.

There are 7 key elements to a smooth customer break-up:

1. Tell them in private, never in front of other customers. If you feel that you need a witness, ask a trusted person to be there. Just don't turn it into a situation where your customer feels "ganged-up" on.

2. Be explicitly clear that you are ending the professional relationship. Use direct language, so there is no room for misinterpretation or confusion later.

3. Have a simple explanation that justifies your decision without shaming the other person.

4. Be gracious and respectful. Remember, anything you say or do can be used against you if your customer is angry about it later.

5. Be firm. Half-way measures can really backfire, so once you've said you're letting them go, do not go back and try to "make it work."

6. If they pre-paid for your services, be prepared to refund them on the spot. If they owe you money, tell them exactly what you expect (or don't expect) from them.

7. If you have a mailing list, remove their name. Don't annoy someone you've dropped by continuing to market to them. Take care of yourself

No matter how justified your decision is, letting go of a customer is hard to do. Part of you will feel good knowing that you are doing the right thing for your business and your self-esteem, but be prepared for a few emotional ups and downs. If you can, give yourself some free time to process the feelings afterwards. Take a walk, call your business advisor or a friend. Stand tall, knowing that you deserve to be treated with fairness and appreciation. By letting go of business relationships that don't work for you, you are creating room for new prosperity and better relationships to enter your life.

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