How to 'Fire' Bad Customers Without Burning Bridges

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If only firing someone were as easy as Donald Trump makes it look on his TV show The Apprentice. Unfortunately for most of us, the act of firing someone — be it an underperforming employee or a pain-in-the-butt customer — can be a stressful situation. On the one hand, you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, while on the other you know you need to cut loose the dead weight ASAP. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to make the process as pain-free as possible for both parties involved. Just keeps these steps in mind the next time you have to utter the “F” word.

Related: 5 Key Ways to Build Customer Relationships

1. Consider your options.

Unless you’re your company’s sole-proprietor and are responsible for all areas of your business, from customer service to marketing, it might be wise to think about passing off a cranky customer to another member of your team. It’s possible that a change in chemistry is all that’s necessary to fix an unpleasant situation. 

2. Wait for the ideal time.

Before you give your customer the old heave-ho, make sure you do it at a time that doesn’t appear obvious, such as during a contract renewal or annual budget review. This gives you the opportunity to tell a white lie and say that your firm no longer has enough money in its budget to do future business. They’ll never be the wiser, and you’ll have a solid excuse. Hey, money doesn’t grow on trees—am I right? Plus, this is probably the easiest way to sever ties without anyone’s feelings getting hurt. 

3. Offer up a referral.

Even though it might feel good to leave a cranky customer high and dry, consider the diplomatic option of offering them up some leads before you take the high road. Just because they weren’t a good fit for your company doesn’t mean that they don’t need a replacement for the services you provided. Furthermore, if other companies return the favor, you could very well see yourself with potential clients down the line.  

Related: What to Do When You Lose a Client

4. Always leave the door open.

Unless you can see into the future (lucky you!), you have no way of knowing where you and your company will be down the line. Perhaps the point of contact you despise leaves and is replaced by someone who’s more pleasant to work with, or, better yet, the person you do enjoy working with gets a better gig at a competitor and sways his or her new company to hire your firm. If you severed ties on bad terms, you can kiss any future business with that client goodbye for good.

5. Look at it as a lesson learned.

I know, I know, this may sound like something your mother said to you when you were a kid, but stay with me here; there is some truth to it. Once you and your customer have gone your separate ways, take a moment to reflect on why they were so difficult to work with in the first place. Keep a mental note (or in the case of a really irritating client, several mental notes) of these things in the back of your head so that the next time you’re in the market for a client, you’ll see these red flags before it’s too late. For example, does a potential client have a history of unsuccessful past working relationships with other firms or seems unnecessarily nitpicky before you’ve even shook hands to seal the deal? If warning signs start going off in your head, pay attention. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Related: 3 Steps to Happier Customers


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