Article | 6 min read

It’s not me, it’s you. When to break up with a customer.

By Sarah Stealey Reed

Last updated May 27, 2016

As with many relationships, yours began blissfully. There was a bright future—shared goals, milestones to reach, and mutual respect. There was an intensity to do right by one another; there was a passion for success.

And as with many relationships, the breakup was long in coming.

The relationship balancing act

Clients should be the source of revenue, recommendations, and repeat business. But sometimes they are also the cause of heartache, sleepless nights, and mental drain. The wrong customer can feel less like a business partnership

Sometimes a customer is bad because of something you did (intentionally or not), or they just need a little extra TLC—a better-defined process, a new contact within your company, or a little stern talking to. (Customer therapy, perhaps?)

For years I worked for an offshore contact center and dealt with plenty of difficult clients. There were holidays negotiating over the phone, weekends triaging problems outside my control, and midnight meetings filled with heated service discussions. These were all considered, “part of the job.” And while often challenging, our customer-company relationships were mostly respectful and appropriate.

And just like with friendships and marriage, our tolerance levels for “inappropriate” customer behavior will vary. It might be where you are in your career, or it could be where the company is in its revenue stream and lifecycle. But there are certain behaviors that shouldn’t be ignored.

Just like with friendships and marriage, our tolerance levels for “inappropriate” customer behavior will vary.

When to break up with a customer

How do you know when it’s time to say, “It’s best for us to part ways,” with a customer?

They are abusive. In my prior career, a well-known U.S. cable company had been our highest revenue client. But time, the economy, and their own customer favor changed that. When their business took a hit, they started swinging back at us. We tolerated (for a bit) the continuous contract revisions and tighter service-levels. There was still a sense of “partnership”—until there wasn’t.

Twice I overheard the client berate an unsuspecting agent over a quality assurance calibration. Several times they yanked promised incentives after a campaign had successfully ended. And the final straw was me walking into a conversation between a client executive and one of our leaders—where the former verbally assaulted the latter until he was reduced to tears. The breakup felt good.

They are unreasonable. Many would say that the aforementioned client was unreasonable, and they’d be right. At the crisis pinnacle, the demands far exceeded the rewards, and a breakup was justified. Brands, though, are often hesitant to let customers go based on anecdotal information, which is partly why customer rating systems are on the rise.

More and more companies are rating customers—Uber, Airbnb, Lyft—to allow drivers, sellers, and hosts to review customers, just as the customers are reviewing them. Enough complaints and a customer may find themselves on a “no-serve” list.

This approach, according to Fred Reichheld, creator of the Net Promoter System (NPS), is one method of, “bringing civilized behavior back into the business world.” Customer demands that are unreasonable and unfair will get the customer blacklisted. “When bad behavior becomes part of their permanent record, the world will get a little bit better,” Reichheld says.

They steal from you. Stealing doesn’t always mean money. Customers can also steal time, energy, and respect.

Have you ever had a customer that drains so much time from you, that you can’t concentrate on anyone or anything else? Or their requirements pull you away from your other priorities—the ones that generate income, happiness, or momentum? “A single bad customer can practically destroy a business,” says Ken Gabler, a small business expert.

“A single bad customer can practically destroy a business.” – Ken Gabler

While working for a SaaS company, a client wanted our software to do something it wasn’t intended to. After significant development time and effort, they changed their mind. Again. They had stolen months of leadership strategy, technical resources, and research funds from us that should have been spent on the greater customer base. “I’m sorry, we just are no longer right for each other,” was the conversation our CEO ultimately had.

They threaten you. A friend in the clothing manufacturing space spent years cajoling with a high-revenue client that routinely threatened to leave her. Every time something would go awry, he’d demand a refund or browbeat her into a huge discount. Instead of giving her the consideration of time to fix an issue, he’d immediately threaten to yank his business. “I felt terrorized by his demands,” she admitted. “All my other clients understood my growing pains and my supply-chain challenges. They were willing to work with me, and now we’re all more successful. He, on the other hand, I had to let go because I was so sick of being on pins and needles.” Liz Tilatti, a Forbes contributor, calls this the “Bully” customer—a spin-off of an abusive one.

They are unfaithful. A lot of customers do business with more than one brand. And that’s ok. Let’s face it; monogamy isn’t for everyone or all things. But if the relationship is important, then it should be based on trust and transparency.

Monogamy isn’t for everyone or all things. But if the relationship is important, then it should be based on trust and transparency.

On a very micro-level, I am faithful to Uber, but I buy my workout gear from more than one place. I have no loyalty to food markets. I try to be monogamous to a certain hotel brand, but recently they’ve let me down. But instead of sneaking away, I told them why I was thinking of staying somewhere else. I was transparent about my expectations, and they responded in kind.

In the contact center industry, it’s not uncommon for a brand to work with multiple outsourcers. But the best partnerships are when they all know about each other. The relationships that fail are because one party inadvertently discovers that their partner is cheating on them with another. If a customer is willing to do that, chances are good that they are also disclosing information about you to a competitor, or using your contracts against each other.

If you find that a customer is manipulating you, by cheating on you, it’s probably time to let them go.

Breaking up is hard to do

Not every customer will make the termination decision easy, so it’s best for you and your company to have clear parameters in place before such a situation arises. Just as in dating, know your deal-breakers, learn the warning signs, and stay true to your beliefs. A better suitor (customer) will likely come along.

If you have to break up with a customer, here are some steps to make sure you do it right.

1. Have a plan for their transition.
2. Get any necessary permissions.
3. Communicate your intentions very clearly—both internally and externally.
4. Do it in person, or at least over the phone.
5. Make good on any promises or open items.
6. Prepare for the backfire.
7. Be ready to play counselor, as emotions may run hot.
8. Move on.

Remember: A bad customer does not mean a bad person, a bad customer might be your fault, and a bad customer might still be a salvageable customer. It’s time to part ways when the customer is too difficult or costs you or your business too much. Break up with your customer, as you’d break up with a loved one—