Businesses generally need all the customers they can get. However, sometimes you need to “fire” a customer, as terrible as that sounds.
Allow me to illustrate. Years ago, I was running a fast-growing medical-oxygen business in Littleton, Colorado. Past closing time on a last Friday afternoon, I received a telephone call that effectively changed the way I operated my business. It was Mrs. Garcia on the phone, screaming that my oxygen machine was going to kill her, and I’d better get my bleep self over to her house to rescue her. (An oxygen machine is a device called a concentrator that takes room air and enriches it oxygen. It runs on electricity.)
At that point, I’d worked hard for nearly five years to take good care of our patients. They could choose from 26 other oxygen dealers in the Denver area, so I constantly preached customer service to our employees. I was always telling them: “Do whatever you have to do to keep a patient.”
Now it was my turn to “save” a patient. Hurrying out the door, I grabbed a full oxygen cylinder. All my employees knew Mrs. Garcia. Like most of my patients, she could get along for several hours without supplemental oxygen, even though her lungs were partially ruined from years of smoking. But she would often call with extreme demands, usually accompanied by screaming and occasionally cursing.
I got to Mrs. Garcia’s home in record time, weaving in and out of traffic and running several nearly red lights. When I banged on her door, her husband answered and said everything was all right. Their grandson had pulled out the plug, but now the oxygen machine was working again.
After I caught my breath and calmed down a bit, I pleasantly suggested that if they had another emergency with Mrs. Garcia thinking she was going to die, they should call 911.
As a direct result of that experience, I started reanalyzing my business and looking at each of my customers. Even if we were making a profit on a customer like Mrs. Garcia, was it worth it? Frequent unscheduled calls, many of which were unnecessary, increased my costs significantly while not increasing income at all. Plus, excessive interruptions and demands could contribute to burnout for me and my employees.
I made two significant changes as a result of that experience with Mrs. Garcia. First, I created a short checklist that we could review with customers who called in after business hours. It included questions like, “Is the machine plugged in?” “Could you turn it off and on and see if it starts up?” “Is your oxygen tube firmly attached to the nozzle?” This checklist significantly reduced emergency trips to customers’ homes.
The second change was that I “fired” Mrs. Garcia and three other patients. Of course, I made sure they would have orderly transfers of service from us to a competitor. My employees all agreed with my decision because they’d felt tremendous unnecessary pressure from these patients. They understood that it was only my call, as the business owner, to seldom and rarely fire a customer who made unreasonable demands.
You may want to do a similar analysis of your own customer list. Are there clients or customers that you and your company would be better off without, either financially or emotionally? If so, I suggest you carefully plan how to kindly but firmly refer them to another company. Believe me, your business, your employees, and even your bottom line may well be better for it.
Stephen W. Gibson is the founder of the Academy for Creating Enterprise, which has helped thousands of families in eight countries lift themselves out of poverty by starting small businesses. For more information, visit the Academy website.