Fire the customer and make it snappy

I'm kind of fascinated by the concept of firing the customer. Seth Godin posts today about a couple that he wishes JetBlue would have fired long ago. While I think that firing the customer is something that is very serious and only to be used in extreme cases, we live in extreme times...

...what do you do if the customer abuses your staff?

...what do you do if the customer impacts the ability of your other customers to derive value from your products/services

...what if your customers costs more to serve than they deliver in profit with no additional upside like goodwill or brand enhancement

...what if your customer doesn't hold up their end of the bargain? I think about this specifically with regard to the type of work that I do; the quality of which is contingent upon having the customer *involved* in the process

...what if your customer is an evangelist, however one that the rest of your market finds unpalatable?

This is a timely topic for me as I work on a Service Level Agreement for the customers and partners of my team. But SLAs only work if you are part of the same micro system (where accountabilities can be identified and controlled). And customer need prioritization is a huge factor for us, and a challenge as we service teams across business units at Microsoft...whee!

What about the larger ecosystem? The external market? What about situations where you have resource constraints and want to focus on your "best" customers? How do you prioritize? How do you start to un-serve the others?

Comments (11)

  1. Tim says:

    Unfortunately, the downside of my company working with a large number of creative Talent and clients is that we have to fire both on occasion. But we have a one-to-one relationship with them, so it’s easier for us than it would be with Jet Blue. It’s a lengthy process that no one here likes, but we decided a long time ago if we weren’t going to work with someone, we’d have to tell them exactly why (with clients this could mean anything from not paying us for months on end to being an environment we don’t want to send our Talent to). The Talent we employ (who are W-4s) have to come in and have "the talk" with their Agent and the Area Manager (now you know why no one likes to do this).

    What we notice, however, is that these people always come back. Sometimes telling us they’ve never worked with us before just to get their foot in the door. Weird, huh? It seems no one can satisfy their needs.

    But we work with a smaller number of people, and how, exactly, would a company like Jet Blue get around the folks Seth was speaking about? You know they’ll be back. Because no airline is going to treat them the way they want to be treated.

  2. Jackie Huba says:


    Great question! I think one can fire customer if and when it makes sense.

    Two of my favorite examples of this:

    – Best Buy ranks all of its customers by profitabilty. They "fire" the lowest ranking customers by not sending them direct mail that contains promotions or special offers. They are not overtly telling the customer to go away; they just aren’t encouraging them to come back.

    – Southwest Airlines may not let a passenger on a flight or may offer to refund a ticket on the spot if that passenger verbally abuses one of their employees. I’ve seen it happen on the A&E show "Airline" that is a reality show based around Southwest. Most airlines are dying for customers, but Southwest knows that keeping  employees happy first is #1.

  3. Jen says:

    I think that going as far as blacklisting or "firing" customers on first offense is a bit rash.

    However, a stern warning or some other kind of clear notification of unacceptable behaviour is certainly appropriate.

    Excessive profanity and personal attacks are examples of such behaviour. Also, wouldn’t over-aggressive passengers be a threat to the airliners, causing all kinds of post 9-11 alarms to go off?

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    Jackie-that’s really interesting. I like the philisophy at Southwest. If the workers aren’t happy, then it’s hard for them to serve customers well.

    Jen-I think I’ll disagree with you on that. I think that exessive profanity or verbal attacks on employees would be the exact kinds of things that warrant firing. I don’t see why, at least in the case of abusing employees and more certainly on airlines, a warning is necessary given that the unspoken rules of appropriate behavior are well known. The risk of the person doing it again would exceed my deaire to retain them. That’s just me though ; )

    And yeah, overaggressive airline passengers can be arrested on arrival, though I am sure there has to be some standard of behavior that is mt for that to happen,

  5. I think we have to take a balance stand towards customers and employees.Of Course,we dont want abusive customers.Now,many companies are adopting new strategies to interact with the customers.Amazon,which mandates the customers to use its webportal alone to contact for any kind of issues.We do not find its contact number in its webpage,rather have to do little searching on web.Doing this,they must have avoided a lot of abusive and shouting consumers especially during christmas and new year 🙂

    And also they can easily filter any abusive messages sent to them through their webportal.


  6. Jonathan says:

    A couple of things come to mind:

    * From a customer point of view, did anyone sitting around these people, including Seth, ask them to stop?  How often are we "enablers" in conversations letting people vent without asking them to stop.

    * Did the staff of JetBlue hand a customer feedback form to these folks or if they weren’t around, perhaps Seth could have handed it to them and said "hey, this is a great way to vent your concerns, since it’s worked in the past for me"

    * I find it interesting that the staff didn’t go to the people sitting in "such and such rows" and ask if they’d be willing to trade spots.

    What amazes me about the discussion of firing customers is that you can’t please everyone, all the time, but how often is this used as an excuse versus a legitimate reason?  In service situations, and really aren’t we all in service positions to internal and external customers, the customers that complain the loudest sometimes may be the ones stating holes in our strategy or execution.  Sometimes they’re complaining about something that doesn’t make sense, but if we ask questions without defending, we might actually get to the bottom of what’s really the concern.

    Remember, we can do ninety-nine things right, but it’s that one time we react or don’t act that people/customers remember.  Hard?  Yes.  Critical?  Absolutely!

  7. HeatherLeigh says:

    Bhaskar-I suspect they also lose customers that would rather speak with someone by phone. There’s a sense of immedicay and humanity via phone that people may not feel through other types of connections.

    Jonathan-I guess that my take-away from the story was that regardless of whether JetBlue didn’t try to accommodate those folks, was the reaction warranted? I doubt I’d hand a feedback card to someone spewing vulgarities.

    Of course, I am just asking the question and don’t profess to have *the* answer. But for the folks that are commenting about balance or warnings, here’s a follow-up question: How much abuse of your employees is tolerable? What’s the line and how do you know when it’s been crossed?

    I only manage a small team, but I can tell you that if someone is swearing at one of my reports, not only do I not want the employee to have to deal with that, but I question whether someone with that level of anger is someone we can afford the extensive effort of "turning-around"; my point being that once they are angry enough to swear at a person they don’t know, they may already be lost to you anyway and it’s best to keep them away from your other customers. Just a thought.

    Yeah, I am so much better at asking the questions than answering them ; )

  8. jay says:

    We mainly look at the following to decide if we wish to maintain an ongoing relationship.

    1. Profitability margins sustainability over a 2-4 year period.

    In outsourcing agreements especially, the clients are okay with you making more money in the first year and noticeably decreasing every year.

    2. Too many requests for change at undesirable times. In any project development, change requests which significantly impact the project effort, focus, budget are the killer.

    3. Rude behaviour of the client staff even after being informed of the same.  Some clients think that they own you because they are giving you projects to do.

    4. Impact of dropping a certain client. Sometimes some clients are in a very influential position in a certain vertical and they cannot be cast aside very easily when the very fact that you have worked for them in projects, would be convincing enough for other clients to trust your ability.

  9. Maria Palma says:

    I try not to worry so much about bad customers.  When you focus on something too much, it tends to show up more in your life (law of attraction).  Fortunately I’ve only had to "fire" a customer once, but it was actually a mutual thing so all was not lost 😉

    However, if someone is downright rude, using profanity, and physically threatening, I would not hesitate to let them go…. In my thirteen years of customer service I’ve only seen this once.  

  10. Jeff Stinson says:

    As the owner and operator of a busy delicattessen, I have found that firing abusive, disruptive, unprofitable, and downright despicable customers is actually good for business. My employees have to know that I have their backs at all times. Please note, that if we have messed up, we do whatever it takes to make things right, but if we have a customer or group of customers who are causing problems for no other reason than to be jerks, then I say Auf Wiedersehen.

    Here is a good example, when I bought my store the walk-in business was way down. Getting fannies in seats was therefore, my focus. We had a group of guys who would come in every morning and sit at the bar. It did not matter whether we had fifty customers in the store, they expected to be waited on hand and foot, right then. In addition, these hecklers made fun of me, my staff, and all of our customers coming in. You would not return to a place where this happened, would you? So, after about a month of this, I pulled all of these guys aside and had a little chat. It worked for a little while, and then they were right back being their usual disruptive, childish selves. So, one morning I walked in, and one actually asked me "If I had a problem?" Trying not to lose it completely, I walked over to them and asked them all politely to leave my store. I explained to them, that if and when they learned some manners, they could return. I have not seen any of them for over four years. Meanwhile, sales have steadily increased.

  11. HeatherLeigh says:

    that’s the way to do it!

Skip to main content