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When to fire your customer

Progressive Forage Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 01 May 2018
firing hay customers illustration

“The customer is always right,” in the hay business. Right? Except when they’re not.

Who came up with that mantra anyway? Well, it turns out Harry Selfridge did in 1909. He was trying to drum up business for his London department store, and businesses have been paying the price for that lie ever since.

Society discourages profiling, at least political profiling, and I’m not going to tackle that argument today. But just for clarity’s sake, let’s talk about hay customer profiles. Do any of these sound familiar?

The endless quote collector – This customer not only calls for constant pricing, but also wants special discounts, demands free things or feels their situation requires special handling. They’re exhausting (and often late paying their invoices).

The chronic glass-half-empty folks – It’s not as though I don’t have empathy for these folks; I know their lives are hard. The problem for your business is that if they complain about everyone else they’re doing business with, what do you think they’re saying to others about your business? Complainers rarely complain to the source; they complain to everyone but the source. And that’s bad for business.

The nitpicker – “Why can’t I pick and choose the bales I want? I’m paying for them.” “I only want second-cut timothy.” “That bale is too heavy (too short, too long, too yellow … whatever).”

The “we really don’t know what we’re doing” customers – They likely have their daughter’s horse in the back lot and someone told them every hay horror story possible – whether it’s true or not. And no matter what your hay looks like, they’ve heard a story about that, and it wasn’t good. “This bale looks brown; I don’t want to pay full price for that.”

I suppose we could come up with more profiles for the bad customer, but this isn’t a gripe session. This article isn’t as much about the customer as it is about how you handle the customer. As Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”

Resolving conflict

Obviously, to make money you need to sell hay. Customers are necessary, and there are many good ones – folks who pay on time, folks who are pleasant to deal with, folks who treat you with respect. But customers are people and conflicts will arise.

First attempt should always be to resolve the conflict. But do you know what the conflict really is? Ask yourself: Do I understand the real problem? People might not even be really sure what the problem is, so they say vague things like, “The horses just didn’t eat it.” It could be they’ve been overfed. It could be the hay was a bottom bale or had a little mold. It could be a lot of things. That’s where active listening comes in. You have to ask some questions to get at the real problem.

It’s helpful to not ask questions that start with “why.” Questions that start with “why” are often processed in the limbic brain, which has no language. (That’s why your teenager tells you, “I dunno,” when you ask why he missed curfew.) Instead, ask “what” or “how” questions that the neocortex can process (which has language) like, “What did the animals do when you fed it?” “What were you feeding prior?” and “What is your feeding routine?” In other words, spend a little time delving into the problem to really define it.

The breakup

Breakups are hard. And the business “hustle” can be addictive – that pride, that bulldog attitude that built your business is hard to turn off. Essentially, however, if you’re trying to determine if this is “the last straw” with a customer, you have already passed that point.

Here are some signs that indicate it may be time to cut a customer loose:

  • The customer’s conversations drain you.
  • The customer rehashes the same thing again and again.
  • You work overtime trying to please them, but it becomes apparent they can’t be satisfied.
  • You start ignoring the calls (thanks to caller ID).
  • You stop sending invoices, hoping they don’t contact you again.
  • The customer is rude or abusive to you or your employees.

Consider Southwest Airlines’ dilemma. As reported in the Huffington Post, a woman who frequently flew on Southwest complained (officially) after every flight with a litany of complaints – about the unassigned seating, absence of a first-class section, no in-flight meal, the boarding procedure and casual atmosphere, among other things. After several complaint letters, the last letter was forwarded to Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher’s desk. In 60 seconds Kelleher wrote back and said, "Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb."

If you’re headed for a breakup, the goal is to be clear – don’t leave the relationship hanging. End it. A simple call that says, “Our business is going in a different direction,” is sufficient. (Don’t do the passive-aggressive thing where you hope if you make it miserable enough for them, they won’t call you.)

Cultivating better customers

And perhaps we should have started this article with a dialogue on how to cultivate better customers in the first place. Let’s have that discussion now.

Set boundaries – Time is not an endless commodity, so take good care of yours. Avoid receiving emails, texts or phone calls on weekends (or whatever days or hours you decide). Let your customers know how the relationship will work – what your business hours are, when they can expect a response, what the payment terms are. Be very clear. Let the customers know what your dispute or refund policy is up front.

Back up your employees – If the attitude at your farm is “the customer is always right,” then by extension you’ve set your employees up to fail. If you’ve clearly communicated expectations to your customers, then you should empower your employees and back them up. Don’t let a customer “climb the chain of command” to the owner just to have the owner give in to the customer’s demands when the employee has been clear and has followed procedures and policies. Bring the employee into the discussion, and back them up.

Resolve disputes quickly – Actively encourage customers to contact you first if there is a problem. And be polite, even if they’re wrong. There’s no excuse in business for rudeness.

Keep records – Takes notes of promises and agreements. A follow-up email outlining the discussion you had over the phone is a good way to document the discussion. Take a quick photo on your phone of the hay that was loaded and note who the customer was that bought it. It’s a quick way to verify what was actually loaded onto the trailer and what was agreed to.

Let them know you value the relationship – A quick card in the mail thanking them for their business goes further toward good relationships than you might think. Meaningful relationships take work. Hold up your end of that endeavor by being proactive.

As Katherine Barchetti says, “Make a customer, not a sale.”  end mark

Lynn Jaynes
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PHOTO: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

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