Do Bad Customers Run Your Business?

If you’ve never had one, you’re lucky.

If you have experienced really bad customers, it’s an experience that sticks with you for years, if not forever.

I’m not being melodramatic. I vividly remember my first really awful customer. I should have known he was trouble when he asked me to bring copies of my degree certificates to our first meeting, to prove my qualifications. Just to put it in context, he wanted me to help him market his storage and racking business, so quite what my degree in German & Russian and my MBA had to do with it, I’m not sure. Still, being the customer-pleasing person I thought I had to be, I duly obliged. It was just the start of an awful ‘bad customer’ experience.

He went on to take over my business and life for the next 6 months.

He would constantly call me up for meetings (he lived 40 miles away) and then berate me for wasting time.

He would pick holes in everything I did. Nothing was ever good enough and everything was my fault.

He used that as an excuse to avoid paying my invoices on time, if indeed at all.

My confidence was rock bottom. I constantly doubted myself and my ability. I began to think I was going crazy.

He was a bully, there is no question of that now I look back, but at the time I was caught up in constantly trying to get things right, because I didn’t feel I was good enough. He kept telling me I wasn’t. I didn’t want to be ‘sacked’ and I needed the money.

Now, if this is sounding like an psychologically abusive relationship, it had all the signs and I felt I had too much invested in it to walk away. For SIX MONTHS – for six months I put up with this madness. I’m only glad I saw the light before my entire business went down the pan (along with my mental health).

Who was running my business?

Certainly not me.

I was spending most of my billable time on the person who treated me worst, who didn’t value me or my time, who shouted the loudest and made me feel inadequate.

My worst customer was running my business.

He was dictating how I spent my time and energy. He dictated when I got paid. He influenced all my business decisions during that period – I didn’t have time to take on any nice clients as I was spending all my time trying to get his marketing right and finally do a ‘good job.

And I KNOW I am not alone because I hear this every day from small business owners in my groups. 

Their stories are different, of course, but the key points are the same.

They spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on the people who shout the loudest, who demand their attention (when they don’t deserve it), who treat them the worst and who make them feel like they are in the wrong.

They base their pricing on the people who tell them they are too expensive.

They are letting their worst customers run their business and they are so caught up in the drama and bullying that they can’t stop it.

It’s horrible but it happens all the time, to all sorts of small business owners.

It might even have happened to you.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories, from dress-makers and florists, to consultants and crafters, across every business sector you can imagine. Sometimes the bad customer is a person. Sometimes it’s a business. Sometimes it’s a big organisation that should know better. I’ve heard cases of bullying, of customers blackmailing small-business owners, threatening to shame them on social media (yep, had that one, too. She was a joy to work with!) or ‘get them closed down’. I’ve heard tales of small businesses held to ransom, with the ‘customer’ withholding payment for weeks or months, knowing the small business in question is relying on that money but also is too scared to take it ‘legal.’

It’s rife. And because most of the small business owners in question are busy trying to keep their head above water, maybe trying to raise a family or hold down another job while they build their business, the bullies get away with it.

So, my next question is ‘who should be running your business?’

Well, as far as I’m concerned YOU should be running your business. You should dictate how you spend your time and energy. You should decide who you want to work with and what sort of work you want to do. You should dictate your prices, so you make a good profit and therefore a good living.

Of course, you need to take notice of your customers – their feedback is invaluable, but make sure you are taking notice of the right customers. Not the bad ones.

I realise this is tricky because often, you need the money but what I’m saying is, even if you can’t afford to lose them now don’t base your business decisions on them in the future. Shape your business around the people who really value you, because they are definitely out there. You just need to work out who they are and get your business in front of them, higher prices and all.

Here are some things you can do reduce the risk of this happening to you:

  1. Have clear terms and conditions that state what is expected from you and from them. Cover things like deposits, cancellation terms, complaints procedure and the fact you will seek to recover outstanding payments in court. Put all the things in there that will protect you if a customer suddenly turned into an AWFUL customer. Make sure your terms are clear and cover you, if they change their mind or decide not to pay. You need to make sure you are not out of pocket and that you leave yourself time to fill that spot in your diary or get compensated for short notice, if you’re someone who takes bookings. Make sure they are given a copy and read it and SIGN it before you do any work for them.
  2. Take the emotion out of it. If you feel a customer is ‘turning bad’ then look at what is going on, without taking anything personally (hard, but try!). It’s very easy to get caught up in feeling upset and offended and worried but if you can step out of that, it’s easier to deal with the situation. You need to see where the customer is coming from and whether they have a genuine complaint. Has there been miscommunication? Has there been a clash of expectations? How can you put it right? Or are they really just trying to pull a fast one?
  3. Think like a business owner. What would a business owner (rather than ‘little old me’) do in this situation? What would a bigger business do? Are you being treated differently?
  4. Be prepared to say no. Be prepared to walk away. Bad customers often come sugar-coated and you sometimes can’t see what’s lurking beneath until it’s too late. If you get warning signs, get out.
  5. Go with your gut, but back it up with terms, conditions and contracts.
  6. Keep communicating. Sometimes things go bad because one of you gets sidetracked by life and the other side has no idea what is happening, so all of a sudden it turns into a ‘situation’ that could easily be avoided.
  7. Communicate in writing. You might need it later.
  8. Don’t give in to threats. If they DO shame you on social media when you have done nothing wrong, the truth will out. Just don’t get involved in an online slanging match – make a simple statement if you must, explaining you have all the evidence of the truth but you are not prepared to comment on a customer order.
  9.  Stay professional. 

Don’t let any of this put you off. In 14 years of running a business, I’ve only had a couple of eye-wateringly bad customers and each time I learned a lot.

Most customers are lovely. Just always remember, you are running a business not trying to be the most popular kid in the playground and sometimes it’s the tough decisions that will save your skin down the line.

Sometimes, too, it’s best just to walk away even if it means losing money because you don’t want to let the fight break your business but don’t be too ready to roll over and give in. If you heed my tips, above, you will be able to refer any bad customers back to them and show you mean business.

Oh, and if you have any advice to share, pop it in the comments!

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