Sending customers away and firing your own customers

Yesterday, Paul Greenberg asked on Twitter:

“Can anyone give me names of leading social media/social network analyst besides @jowyang, of course. Big or small firms or soloists okay”.

I’m not sure what he was looking for, or why I wasn’t included in his query (update he responded below in comments), but I quickly responded:

“@pgreenbe try Oliver Young (Forr), @monkchips (redmonk) @gartenberg (Jupiter) @yarmis (AMR Research). Did I just refer to my competitors?yea”.

It should have been @jyarmis I had it wrong

While I’m started, he should also check out eMarketer, Hitwise, Compete, and Gartner, you’ll find plenty of resources from those analyst firms. Need even more resources? I created a list of resources for those seeking analysts.

The natural instinct for most companies is to pull customers as close as they can, so why in the heck would I sent someone away from me? Well first of all, it was clear that he was seeking an alternative voice, so whatever I can do to help him on his quest may lead him back to me.

The thing about people is that if you send them away, when thinking about their best interests, the hope is that they’ll come back with friends, good luck Paul! For another perspective on this same discussion, see what colleague Josh Bernoff thinks about talking about your competitors.

Also, yesterday at the 10th Aniv of the Cluetrain we talked about when some customers are too costly to do deal with, and expelling them (firing your own customers) was a good idea. Apparently, Royal Caribbean cruises banned a vocal customer for life from their ships, I somehow think there are two sides of the stories, but you be the judge.

Tell me a time when you or your client sent customers away, maybe it was to help them, maybe it was to get rid of them.

When would you send away prospects or fire your own customers?

  • When they are unethical, lie, or won’t ever listen. See The No Assholes Rule (http://www.stoweboyd.com/message/2006/05/the_downside_of.html)

  • When they take up more of your time than they’re worth. And when they are close-minded (life’s too short to work with people who are aren’t open to good ideas).

  • When I was a callow youth there were legendary tales of the Sun newspaper’s newsroom… the editor, it was said, would often respond to reader complaints by telling the complainant they were forever banned from buying his newspaper ever again.

    I guess if you’re arrogant enough to believe you’re right and they are wrong – and you’ve got the numbers to back that view up – fire away.

    Now of course it works the other way. If we don’t make it easy for the community we serve to contribute they’ll fire us and go and make their own.

    Media has seen this first and fast. But all production will follow.

  • Hi Jeremiah. Thanks for the help. You’re living the social change rather than just writing about it, and that certainly gives you a deeper knowledge than most, despite your protestations about being a “newbie” at this. I think you’re great for your knowledge and commitment to help. I’d like to clarify something. I didn’t exclude you. What I meant was that I already knew your name (as I know Charlene Li & Josh B. and for CRM 2.0 Bill Band) at Forrester. So I didn’t need someone to tell me you are one. I’m writing the 4th edition of CRM at the Speed of Light and it will all be premised on the social customer and their ownership of the business ecosystem and I’m going to want to interview you, and Bill and Charlene/Josh but also others from other firms or independents with a strong and passionate view on all this. That’s what the query was all about. You game for an interview? 🙂 Thanks for all the other suggestions. I’ll be checking into those today and Monday.

  • sure

    Small businesses must choose their customers. Especially when the service customer need is beyond your scope. You also can’t set up a good relationship with customers who demonstrate an inability to do so. Give great service (and document it) to good customers and by-the-books to everyone else.

    One other thing: the customer is not always right. Depending on the field a customer may not have the education to understand the value of your service. Having a fair polices and a willingness to educate (to a point) is essential.

    Outlining what you intend to do, your policies and costs are critical at the time of quote. Any surprises will tend to disturb the customer and lead them into “complaint” mode.

  • Jeremiah, I think your strategy is right on! I am glad you did not fall into the trap of keeping the customers gripped in your clutches. The tighter you hold the faster they will find a way to squeeze out.

  • Jennifer D.

    The stronger alternative to firing your customers is to make them your competitors’ customers. You win on multiple fronts that way!

  • I gained a huge respect for you in this post.

    My motto has always been if you can help enough people get what they want, in some shape or form in return it will come back and benefit you.

    Great Post… love the case studies.

    Cindy McAsey
    Barefoot in the Garden

  • Equal attention should be paid to customers to acquire and customers to fire. Poetic license not intended.

    In my time at a small web development shop, we worked 80% of our magic for the 20% we should have parted with months earlier. This is where strong mgmt is essential. Personal ties and loyalty to clients that helped start the business resulted in a lack of resources required to grow.

    Looking back, we did no favors to the clients we should have dumped. There were other up-and-coming companies that could have serviced their needs better, cheaper, and left us better positioned to meet needs of our rising clients.

    In light of the Cluetrain anniversary, the workers in the trenches know when the time has come to cut ties. This is when clients corners need to get cut to meet budget, innovation is just not possible, or the value of the relationship equals nothing more than keeping the lights on.

    In my experience, clients need to be fired when there is no value in the relationship. On the interactive side, that means lack of budget, lack of motivation, or lack of innovation.

  • rbtroj

    Right on the money, Jeremiah!

    Seth Godin has also written about this a few times (such as here: http://is.gd/cMV) and has interesting insights into it.

  • Paul thanks for the clarification!

  • In a consultative agency environment it is crucial that clients gel with consultants. Mutual respect, communication and trust are integral to successful engagements. If the customer (client) is not honest, communicative or trustworthy, they should be politely fired.

  • When they are unprofitable or show no potential to be a profitable customer.

  • Most questions like this can easily be answered by Google and the like; it’s not like the information’s not out there. If someone asks me what the major digital marketing agencies are and who does good work, I’ll tell them. (Privately, as a friend, I’ll tell them who to be extra cautious of too.) By serving as a resource, you provide much more value.

    As you mention with consultants, it’s all about relationships and finding the right service provider. It’s not necessarily that you’ll be able to provide better data or my company will get the unquestionably better ROI.

  • Jeremiah,

    Your post is synonmous to “a voice in the desert”, i.e. believing that your goodwill shall be returned to you, sometime, someplace and somehow.

  • I market a white label social network company in a space with 100 competitors. In our situation, I think that “fit” between us and a customer is as critical a component as anything else. I’m happy to point people in the direction of other vendors I think provide a high level of service and technology because I feel that we are all competitive and small differences such as who best “gets the idea” or other intangibles is often the only thing between a win or a loss.

  • It reminds me of that wonderful, sappy Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street; THe Macy Floor Manager, “What you are telling people to shop at our competitors!”

  • Sometimes, nothing you do can satisfy a customer, especially when their expectations are completely unreasonable. When I first bought my partner out I had a legacy client to deal with who had done nothing but complain about not getting on the cover of Business Week, even though they were a small private tech start up that had not reached profitability after 5 years. I sat down with the CEO after the buyout was completed and listened to him complain for about a half an hour. I repeated his complaints in summary to make sure I had heard him properly and then step by step explained why his expectations were out of whack, that we had exceeded the demands of our contract, and that we were creating opportunities for him beyond what he should expect for a company in his niche. But then I dropped the other shoe.
    I said I realize that he has particular expectations for a PR firm that we can not accomplish within the realm and scope of his budget and his industry niche, and that the outcome of those expectations could be disastrous for his company and rather than try to continue meeting unreasonable expectations at no apparent gain for either of our endeavors, I would prefer to part company at this time. I then handed him a letter of resignation, thanked him for his time and took my leave.
    We had three other meetings after that while he tried to convince me to come back and I refused each time. The company went into receivership a year later.
    Last year, that same CEO called me back in to talk about another company he was running. He said he was not talking to any other agency, but wanted to work with me. I took a look at his plan and made significant adjustments and said I would take the account with the condition that he present the company accordingly. He agreed.
    Today, that company is doing 150 percent over expectations and is well on the way to a liquidity event and the CEO accounts our work as a significant reason for it.
    Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a customer is fire them.

  • Lou

    Great story, seriously, thanks for sharing.

  • VK

    Larry Seldens book: Angel Customers and Demon Customers, published in 2003, describes customer contributions and strategies. This link to Amazon can tell you more. Best Buy was heavy into this strategy.

    http://tinyurl.com/6hskr2

  • I work in the media consultancy sector in Europe. Since the tools for measuring effectiveness of a programme (especially radio) are still crude and the product is not tangible, the scene is set for disagreement when management changes. And the management of many broadcast stations is changing at an annual turnover rate of between 20 and 30 percent in some countries. I have encountered several bungee managers who stay long enough to get their business cards printed and then disappear from the sector completely – often leaving a trail of really stupid decisions behind them. I recommend not only reading Stowe Boyd’s blogpost for a couple of years back (see first comment) but also putting into effect and then evaluating things a year from now. Most of the arguments I have witnessed in the past are because of a difference in expectations. I just love the demotivators on despair.com (no connection with them). They have one that says sometimes the only way to boost morale is to fire all the unhappy people. Hear, hear.