When Firing Customers Makes Sense

Ann All

In Friday's blog post on Human or IVR: Not an Either/Or Option, I mentioned "firing" unprofitable customers as part of my larger subject of the difficulties of offering cost-effective customer service. I believe companies should always provide the option of support delivered by a human. But I don't think it's realistic to expect companies to tie up human agents' time with inquiries from folks wanting to know such information as store hours or locations. It not only drives up customer service costs, but it also creates delays for folks with more pressing issues.


After waiting at the post office for about 15 minutes to mail several packages, I was nearly at the front of the line when a man sailed in and cut to the front of the line to ask a "quick" question about getting a passport. When it became evident that he actually had several questions, the employee on duty nicely asked him to go to the end of the line. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he may have had trouble finding this information online. I know from experience that government Web sites can offer a confusing user experience.


Let me reiterate here: Companies should offer well-designed self-service channels to handle routine inquiries and to provide options for customers who prefer to serve themselves. And yes, I agree with the folks who commented on my post: Designing these channels shouldn't be a technology-driven exercise, but one in which IT works closely with business and design professionals.


Insisting on speaking with a human agent to get store hours isn't as unconscionably rude as this man's actions, yet it results in a similar effect. And here's the thing: Some customers will always want personal attention, regardless of whether or not they need it. Imagine a customer who does this on a daily basis. Or a customer who misses a payment deadline every month and wants to haggle about it with an agent. Sometimes it just makes sense to cut a customer loose.


This should obviously be a last resort. As CRM consultant Graham Hill wrote on the Customer Think Web site in 2007, following Sprint's decision to dismiss 1,000 of its customers, a company first needs to take a good, hard look at itself, asking questions that may reveal a need to make changes to its products, people and processes:

  • Does it need to address some fundamental weakness in its products and services?
  • Have customers been sold inappropriate products or services?
  • Are the company's customer service agents struggling to solve problems?


The customer may bear some responsibility, as in my example above. Even then, companies may be able to retain customers by asking:

  • Can it get the customer to use lower-cost channels to resolve problems?
  • Can it pass on costs of service to the customer?
  • Can it transfer the customer to a lower-cost partner?
  • Can it suggest an appropriate outlet for customers who just want social contact?


A 2008 BNET piece reiterates much of Hill's advice, offering some real-world examples drawn from a Harvard Business Review article, and emphasizes the importance of not adding insult to (possible) injury. When possible, notify customers in person or at least have a human deliver the news over the phone. Give plenty of advance notice. Help customers realize ending the relationship may be mutually beneficial, if appropriate.

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