Fire your worst customers

In Seth Godin’s recent blog post, more, More, MORE!, he makes the unpopular-but-wise assertion that until you fire your worst customers, you’ll never be able to do your best.

I think it applies to clients just as much as consumers. The bottom line: you can’t please everyone, and it’s stupid to try. You’ll end up making no one happy — most of all yourself. Read on.

Some consumers are short-sighted, greedy and selfish.

Extend yourself a little and they’ll want a lot.

Offer a free drink in the restaurant one night and they’re angry that it’s not there the next.

The nuts in first class weren’t warm!

The challenge of winning more than your fair share of the market is that the best available strategy–providing remarkable service and an honest human connection–will be abused by a few people you work with.

You have three choices: put up with the whiners, write off everyone, or, deliberately exclude the ungrateful curs.

Firing the customers you can’t possibly please gives you the bandwidth and resources to coddle the ones that truly deserve your attention and repay you with referrals, applause and loyalty.

This seems to be the opposite of conventional wisdom to most people. Why not just charge the most difficult clients more money — an aggravation surcharge? Because there is no amount of money that will ever offset the penalty you’re passing on to your better-behaved, more deserving clients by having your time eaten up by one giant monster.

Last summer I met Anthony Casalena at a casual happy hour gathering, and we got to talking about the evolution of Squarespace, the company he founded, from a freemium model to a subscription model. I asked Anthony how he can get away with not offering a free version of his blogging platform. His answer: “I can’t get away with offering one.”

Why? In his first year of business, 90% of the time he spent answering support requests was for — you guessed it — non-paying users. He realized that the people willing to pay for the service are the ones who really believe in what he’s doing, and those are the people worth his time. Since eliminating its permanently free option (not to be confused with its 14-day free trial), Squarespace’s profits have skyrocketed, and today they’re considered one of NY Tech’s greatest success stories. Read more over at Center Networks.

I have had to deal with this in my own business. I’ve had clients whose actions made it very clear that they didn’t respect my work or my time. I convinced myself that I could just work harder and give more of myself to the project, to prove I was up to the challenge, to show that my determination has no bounds. All I really showed was that I had no self-respect. I finally got the wake up call I needed when the check never came.

You can’t win them all. But would you rather the defeat be on your terms or someone else’s? Always be conscious of who’s treating you with the graciousness you deserve, and who isn’t. When insolence is staring you in the face, it’s best to cut your losses early, and make the space in your life for those who really matter: your fans.

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  1. says

    An old boss of mine used to say “Can we satisfy this client?” It usually came up after more-than-one mini-crisis, and it forced us to take a slightly dispassionate look at what was going on. Was there a mismatch of expectations? Were we not delivering? Were there issues on their end that made success – as we wanted to define it – unachievable? Now, this boss was never satisfied with our performance or the outcome, but would also never give up, so he served as a negative example – what not to do – but I did find this particular statement – can we satisfy this client – to be a good one and even recently brought it up to help us through a difficult period with a client (short version: while they thought at one point that we were as reliable as dirt and we thought they were as unreasonable as dirt, it ended up in a group hug and we're all moving forward with more good stuff together)

  2. says

    Whitney–this is a huge challenge that every company faces (large and small), and the toughest moment is walking away from a cash-paying customer or project when hearing, “yes” sounds so good!

    …or, in other circumstances, when salespeople are incentivized by revenue and not profit! Tough challenge indeed.

    • says

      Walking away from money is always hard, no? But I think we focus far too much on revenue and not on profit. For many of us, profit is hard to calculate. We're in the service business, and unlike with hard goods, there are no wholesale and resale values. Our value is the price we put on ourselves, both in dollars and time. Most people are too lazy to track what they put in, and too scared to calculate what they're really getting out. That's what I'm advocating for.

  3. says

    Whitney —

    A good local example is that of Michael Landrum, proprietor of Rays: The Steaks and Rays: Hell Burger in Arlington, VA. The WashPost did a profile on him recently that included this tidbit:

    “Anyone who Landrum decides has been rude to his staff is asked to leave. So is anyone who uses profanity or threatens an employee, a la “You haven't heard the last of this!” The number of guest evictions tends to reach a high after one of his restaurants receives a review, Landrum said. Last spring, after Ray's: The Steaks moved to a larger location and was re-reviewed by critics, Landrum kicked out as many as three customers a week.”

    It's so unusual, in part because when Michael does this to rude customers, it gets reported via friends or the Internet as Michael or his staff being a jerk. It doesn't hurt his business, though — the restaurants are packed even during the down economy. I'm positive this is in part because he treats his staff well and they are therefore loyal and do a wonderful job.

  4. says

    I had a friend who told me about this when I was with my last company. We were running a free job-board and a paid HR business, both with over a 100 companies registered and all the time we were fixing problems for free users on the job board. It was difficult for us to start charging them, now I think it makes sense to let a few angry customers go, because who stays back; as you said, are the ones who really value your service.

  5. says

    Great, fully agree. There will always be requests from prospects/clients that want to have a product yesterday, cheaper and with more features. Of course companies should be open for challenges, but some challenges are simply having a very negative effect on the team that has to execute a specific project/deliver a specific product (especially if the client is a difficult to work with). Better indeed not to waste your time on the companies that say that they can get a solution cheaper somewhere else, but instead focus on your clients that love your product and your services as they are (including the pricing, delivery time frame and feature specifications)


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