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“I’m sorry, Mr. Jones. I think, given the circumstances, another company could serve you better,” I said calmly, even though I was actually pretty ticked off at the way he had spoken to my best CSR, my dispatcher and my most experienced tech. I braced myself for the blowback, but instead, he apologized profusely and begged us to reschedule the call and allow him to get back into our good graces.
Since this was not his first offense but one of many, I stuck with the advice I had learned about breaking up with a girlfriend when I knew it wasn’t going to work out. I went with, “It’s not you; it’s me.” I invited him again to hire (and likely abuse) my competition.
Why not just take his money? Because Mr. Jones was not my customer. He was among the 5 percent of customers who were causing 90 percent of our problems; we were on a mission to move them out. And he was destroying our company’s culture; I wasn’t going to let it happen.
After all, I had always told my staff: “You’re my No. 1 customer; how I treat you is how I hope you’ll treat our customers. So, know that my family is committing to treating you with the respect you deserve.”
Well, if I meant it — and I did — there came a time or two I had to fire a customer to prove I’d be willing to put my money where my mouth is and stick up for the team.
To be clear, I’m not advocating you get great at firing clients. But if you’re like me, when you tell your employees that they’re No. 1 (and they should be), you believe it’s your responsibility to protect them from customers who are unsafe, unsanitary or downright abusive.
Here are four customer behaviors and one situation you shouldn’t tolerate, and how you can handle them.
1. The Verbal Abuser
Offense: Verbally abuses everyone they come into contact with rude language over the phone or in person (and know we’re used to some cussing being New Yorkers, but you know what I mean). And we understand; we talk about it in meetings all the time that if we were the customer and in distress with a plumbing, heating, cooling or electrical emergency, we, too, could lose our cool.
This speaks to the verbal abuse being more insulting and more personal.
Remedy: Owner visits in person or calls customer directly. Never do this in an email or a text!
Start by saying something like: “We understand everyone has a bad day. But so far, you’ve yelled at everyone you’ve come into contact with more than once; frankly, that is not acceptable to my employees or me. It needs to stop so we can continue to care for your plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical needs. That said, if it happens again after we’ve spoken today, we will respectfully refuse to provide service.”
If they like you and what your company does for them “abuse aside,” most of these people, in my long experience, will fall into line. And if not, your staff will know that you stuck up for them.
2. The Constant Price Shopper
Offense: Knows the price ahead of time and signs the invoice or the proposal. He calls the next day after the work is done and he signed off on the Exit Checklist to re-negotiate the price.
Remedy: I would call them or visit and say something similar to: “Did our tech explain your options? Did he quote you the price so you could approve the work before he started? Did he do an expert repair and is what he came to do done the right way?
“If the answer is yes, then our company has a policy called ‘Shop Once,’ which means I’m happy to make an adjustment if you feel we fell short. But know that I’m making a note in your customer account that we talked about this issue. If you call again, and I hope you do, the price is the price.
“And the reason the price is as it should be is so we can train our staff at our shop (not your home), we can answer our phones ourselves 24/7/365, have fully stocked trucks and the best technology there is in the industry. If all this is important, then we’re the right value if not the lowest price.”
3. The Unsanitary Slob
Offense: Worksite is littered with animal feces (or worse). No judgment (well, maybe a little).
Remedy: Again, a visit or at least a phone call to gently explain: “Your home and, in particular, the areas we are called to work in have been flagged by our techs as unsafe and unsanitary. We take protecting their health and safety as seriously as we take protecting you when we do our work.
“So, you’ll need to please clean it up. When it is, we’ll be happy to stop back to make sure it’s safe for us to continue service there. It’s our sincere hope that this will be the case as we’d love to continue to provide you with the top-notch service you deserve.”
Most people will be embarrassed, but they will do it. If they refuse, that’s OK. Formalize notice that you won’t do future service; they are free to call someone else.
4. The Skater
Offense: Calls for service but hasn’t paid the bill from the last time. Show me the money!
Remedy: Instruct the CSR to inform the customer that he has been flagged in the system and that the previous bill must be paid before any service can be performed.
Quick story: We had made a list of people we were not going to service anymore for various reasons, which we called the Red List. CSRs were supposed to be discrete about this. However, but on this occasion, it was a new CSR who didn’t remember, so she told the customer outright, “I’m sorry, we can’t serve you because you’re on the Red List.”
The customer said, “What’s the Red List? And more importantly, how do I get off it?” The CSR told him that we would come out only if we could pick up the cash for the bill in arrears plus the money for the current call; he immediately agreed!
5. The Unsafe Situation
Sometimes it’s not a person but a situation that you need to walk away from. An example of this from my own experience is that we stopped doing service on rooftop heating units because when it got cold up there, I literally could not think. Some jobs are just so risky, it’s better to make a policy that you don’t do that kind of work.
If your contracting business is very new, you might need to say yes to everyone at first; I get it. To earn the right to be choosy, you’ll need to hone your craft.
The other thing you need to do is figure out what it costs to be in business. Then engage in marketing to drive the right number of calls from the right customers at the right time so that you can be picky. If you’re not good at sales and marketing, you won’t have the guts to do this.
Having more calls coming in than you could possibly do gives you the strength and the ability to pick and choose.
But if it’s too abusive, too unsanitary or too dangerous, you may want to consider saying no anyway — to make room for a customer who will behave in the way you want and deserve to be treated.