By Stefan Sojka
The worst experiences can often deliver the best lessons.
Anyone who has been in business for more than a few nanoseconds has likely encountered at least one difficult customer. Something about certain people and money trips a short circuit in their brain, where logic, decency and empathy get replaced with desperation, anger and a sense of entitlement to the right to be not very nice. We’ve all seen it – maybe we’ve been it, on occasions. The customer is always right, right?
In most cases, that maxim works well as a guide to good customer service, but what about those nasty characters, who make it their business to become your business’ worst nightmare?
One reason why large companies pay lawyers small fortunes to write reams of disclaimers is that they are inoculating themselves from bad customers. Small businesses are not so lucky. We often risk people walking right through our front doors and creating havoc.
One of the biggest mistakes I made when I set out in small business was to presume that everyone had the same ethics and values as I do. Of course they are all open, honest, fair, easy-going and like to resolve any misunderstandings amicably. Yeah, right!
Every small business owner has a story. I’ve had my fair share. Clients who refused to pay, just because they didn’t feel like it. Clients who blamed me because they hired the wrong person to head up their project, then sat back gleefully and watched it implode just so they could unleash their anger at me, the same way they do with all their suppliers. Then there are those who invest their entire existence into something so that the tiniest issue becomes an utter tragedy, leading to midnight phone calls to sort it out after they’ve polished off two bottles of red.
I can laugh about it now, but these customers took their toll. I have associates who have faced far worse; threats of violence, screaming, humiliation and huge financial losses, even bankruptcy from unpaid accounts. Bad customers might be 1 in 100, but that one can ruin everything – at best they can sure suck the fun out of what should be a passionate and joyful pastime, operating a small business. My worst clients have taught me two things:
There is no obligation to serve every customer who comes along
“We reserve the right to refuse service” is a powerful statement. Taking on the wrong customer is simply not worth it. Even though a budding small business might feel a necessity to take on everything that comes along, the opportunity cost of picking up the wrong client is too high. Trust me, there are plenty of awesome customers out there.
Recognize the early warning signs.
With hindsight, I should have listened to the alarm bells. At the first meeting, they told me about a terrible experience they had with a previous supplier (was it the supplier’s fault?). They wanted me to help them take the world by storm, but they didn’t have any money right now. There was just something about their demeanor that I knew was dodgy, but I didn’t listen to my instincts, or my wife, when she said, “I don’t like them. They’re trouble. Don’t do it”.
I would have preferred to have never had any bad clients, but they sure cured me of my innocence and taught me that I deserve better. Life is too short. I want to spend it taking care of all my cool clients who share my values and want a fun, exciting and rewarding ride. Don’t you?