Firing a Customer

I belong to the Professional Association of Custom Clothiers (PACC). It’s a great organization for professional seamstresses and small DEs. Often, on the message board, someone asks advice about a very difficult customer. You should see some of the horror stories that go on there. Honestly, some of these PACC members should be canonized just for dealing with those horror clients. Periodically, the advice comes up to “fire” the customer, especially the most egregious offenders.

Firing a customer is a delicate matter. I’ve done it only a twice – once when I was in high tech and once since I started Gorgeous Things. I think it’s the most stressful thing I have ever done in business. It requires great amounts of diplomacy, and it requires a whole lotta thought in advance and very well chosen wording.

Here’s my advice to those who are thinking of telling a client to take their business elsewhere. Be as gentle as possible, but be firm in your commitment.

Remember that the customer is never wrong. That saying may seem hackneyed, but it’s true. You are dealing with their money, and often with their emotions. Make the conversation about them being right, but you not being the right choice for them. It should go something like this: “This dress is going to be simply lovely and you will look stunning, but I don’t think that I will be able to do it the way you want.” Accept the blame and let them feel that you empathize with their situation.

Keep it short and simple. Avoid doing it by email, at all costs. In fact, avoid doing it in writing at all. Bad news like that should, no, must be delivered by phone or in person. When dealing with the written word, clients can read too much into it – usually negatives. Plus, by putting it in writing or in an email, you are opening it up to be put on the internet, not always verbatim, or with some commentary from the client that may not be complimentary.

Even when dealing with an abusive customer, keep your emotions out of it. Be firm, but polite. I’ll relay a personal anecdote about this. When I was still in high-tech, I sold software and hardware to a very large retailer based in Northern New England. The purchasing agent, I’ll call her “Betty”, was renowned among the industry for her general unpleasantness and she delighted in making life miserable for any salesperson who crossed her path. I actually was able to deal with her without too much difficulty for more than a year, but she never was pleasant, and she was always threatening to send her business elsewhere.

Once she placed an order with me for some memory. For some reason, the memory chips were delivered to my office, not to the customer site. I called her to tell her this and say that they would be Fed-Exed to the site for 10AM delivery. She launched into a – no exaggeration here; I timed it – 6 minute diatribe about how this was my fault and she was expecting the memory to be at her office by 5 (it was 2, the company headquarters was a 2 1/2 hour drive and I had another appointment that afternoon with a much bigger customer) and if it didn’t then they would never buy from me again and she would personally call my boss to make sure I got reprimanded. After talking with my boss, I got a courier service to take the memory chips and deliver them. It cost me $300 that the company would not reimburse, even partially.

The next morning, I got a call from Betty. She had received the memory at 4:55, and it was a good thing she had had to stay late, because otherwise I would have lost a customer. At that point, I simply put on my blandest voice and said, “Now Betty, I appreciate your business, but I have to tell you, I don’t think there is any way that I can ever make you happy, no matter what. Those chips cost me $300 out of my pocket to courier to you, and I’m still not sensing that you are satisfied. I think it would be best from now on if you take your business to Continental Resources. I can even recommend a good sales rep there.”

She was aghast, and insisted that I was the only rep she wanted to deal with. I stuck to my guns, gave her three names (two at other companies, one at mine) and wished her well. I left that job about a month later. I ran into a colleague about a year later, and he said that Betty was still telling everyone that I was the best sales rep she had ever worked with. Go figure!

So the moral of the story is, be true to yourself, but remember you’re dealing with another person. Firm, polite and empathetic are traits that always help when dealing in these situations. And I hope you never have to use this advice!

ETA My, what an inquisitive bunch! The customer I fired since starting GT was a custom clothing client who made me feel very uneasy. Okay???

Happy sewing!

About Gorgeous Things

I own an online fabric store, www.gorgeousfabrics.com. Everything else you need to know about me is what I tell you on my blog, darlings!
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