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What should we do with our bad customers?

I often speak before the leadership teams of top firms, and one of my favourite subjects is the customer experience these companies offer. An observation: I am nearly always asked the same question during the interactive part of the presentation, no matter where I am and which company I am addressing.

Here’s the question: “What do we do with BAD customers?”

I find this rather worrying. The questioner will nearly always be quite emotional, and will recount some serious issue caused by a nasty, deceitful or just plain annoying customer. Others will nod vehemently. Understandable, but the frequency of the question raises concerns. At one event recently, the issue was repeated by nearly every questioner!

Can it be true that Kenyan customers are generally a peculiarly bad lot – that they do not forsake any opportunity to defraud, cheat, irritate or waste the time of our hard-working companies? That Kenyan customers are just window-shoppers who rarely buy; con-men who look for a chance to cheat you out of something or other; egomaniacs who abuse innocent staff; or serial complainers who are never happy no matter what service they receive?

I urge business leaders to exercise some caution here. Bad customers certainly exist, as any seasoned salesperson can attest. There are indeed people who will whine and moan no matter what you do for them; and some do indeed go around looking for opportunities to get something for nothing or claim a refund having consumed the goods.

But so what? Is this something that should temper our attempts to create a world-class service culture, or make us suspicious of customers in general? Not at all. Let us bear in mind some important points here.

The first is this: customers of the bad type exist in all societies, not just ours. Remember, though, that they constitute a very tiny minority. We amplify their presence in our minds because dealing with a bad customer can be draining and annoying, and we remember those incidents more than we do the ordinary transactions.

The average customer is a simple soul who just wants a decent product or service at a decent price. The average customer appreciates your efforts to set up shop and deliver value to her. The average customer is actually reluctant to complain, and only does it when he feels genuinely aggrieved. The average customer applauds when you press her ‘wow’ button – give her something extra she really didn’t expect. The average customer is loyal where he feels honoured and appreciated. That is all.

A mindset that promotes suspicion and mistrust of the average customer is the last thing your business needs, and leaders should be very wary of allowing such a culture to take root. If you dwell on frauds or other misdeeds committed by customers, you will create a common mentality that will make it impossible for the average (wonderful) customer to receive any ‘wow’ service. Disdain for customers will become the norm – and it clearly has in many of our top organizations.

So if you are crafting a programme to deliver exceptional service (if you’re not, why aren’t you?), do remember to place the occasional bad customers in the proper context for your staff. They exist, yes, but they are the exception rather than the rule. We aim to be wonderful to our customers regardless of whether some of them will take advantage.

What about those few diehards who are genuinely bad, though? It’s really very simple. The first time they do something bad, do nothing. Treat them like you would every good customer. The second time, make a note. The third time, step in and politely but firmly terminate your relationship, and send these serial abusers in the direction of your competitors.

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