How to Fire Your Worst Computer Repair Customers

Fire Your Customers

The title of this article may take some readers aback, but I’m targeting this topic in a very genuine manner. Customers that use your services likely have a certain expectation of price, quality, and communication that keeps them coming back. But have you ever stepped back to reverse-evaluate those same people on the needs YOU have?

The relationship between a customer and your business should never be a one way street; if it is, then one party may be taken advantage of. While the notion of “firing” customers is logical, the path must be walked upon lightly with due caution.

I’ve always been a staunch advocate of this advice in running my company FireLogic because, as fellow computer business owners can attest, not everyone is an “ideal” client. My inspiration for this story was a recent posting on the Entrepreneur magazine website in which writer Carol Tice goes over how she handles getting rid of problematic customers. I don’t necessarily agree with every point she makes (nor do all her points directly correlate to a computer business atmosphere) but the overall gist of the discussion still holds very true.

Keep in mind that your own circumstances may greatly affect what direction you take with a particular client. If you are trying to rid yourself of a customer who was referred by a family friend, for example, you’d have a more difficult time of easing the relationship apart then a complete stranger. Nuances aside, here is the methodology of how I approach this sometimes sticky situation.

1. Assess “why” you think a customer needs to be let go. This probably should be a no brainer for most, but seriously, step back and actually ask yourself what about this person brings about consideration for dropping them. Is it a one time argument or a perpetually detrimental relationship? The former can be easily repaired, while the latter is likely a telltale sign that something needs to change. What kind of things constitute a bad relationship? Many things, actually. Someone who is extremely slow to pay but always requests the most prompt service.

A client who asks for the moon but consistently beats you down on price. It could also be someone tougher to decide on, such as a customer that is decent at best, but refers terrible leads that always end up in disaster. Grounds for firing a client may vary, but you catch on to what I am getting at here. If someone is costing you any combination of time, money, or bad word of mouth that doesn’t outweigh the profit you are making off servicing them, then this is when I would consider cutting your losses and severing ties in a proper manner.

2. Tie up loose ends before you take any action. If you’re considering dropping a client due to any combination of issues, be sure that any outstanding projects or work is completed. Severing ties with a customer before finalizing any pertinent work that was promised puts them in the upper hand position for keeping unpaid invoices stagnant or outright refusing to pay entirely. Don’t put yourself in such a position in the first place and “clean your plate” entirely before wiping your hands clean.

Remember that there is always the possibility that legal action may come about from a soured relationship and you don’t want to give the other side any more ammunition for their case. The exception to this rule is if you are working on an extended project that has agreed upon terms that has completion steps dependant upon payment. Taking this into account will also help limit any possible bad PR that this customer passes on to others, keeping your image hopefully as clean as it was before you took the customer on.

3. Determine your approach to “cut” ties, and never resort to anything less than being 100% professional. Unfortunately for computer business owners, bad word of mouth spreads faster than the better kind of word we appreciate. With this in mind, it’s important to cleanly part ways with a client (or at least as best as possible). Once the preliminary assessment of the situation is done, find out what would be the “path of least resistance” to parting ways. I like to use something along the lines of “I’m sorry, but I just can’t service your needs any longer” or “I think you would be better served by (competitor x) or (competitor y).”

There is a lot of interpretation that can be made here by the technician or business owner, and I’d recommend you to adjust your statement/approach to your own circumstances. If the customer, for example, generally uses you to support a niche product of some sort, feel free to come up with a white lie that you no longer service such product. The rule of thumb is: as long as the approach isn’t outlandish and is based in some sort of reality, then it should be a viable option. Just don’t use your parting story to incite or inflame tensions – this will only blow up in your face in the end.

4. Use best (legal) judgement when dealing with abandoned product. A big topic of discussion on the forums happens to be how to handle abandoned goods. This may be computer hardware, software, or a combination of the above. If a relationship sours and you are considering cutting ties, try your best to make the situation amenable enough to give the client a chance to pay any outstanding dues so their hardware can be returned. This goes back to the importance of step 2 in that you don’t want to open the door to any unnecessary legal action by a potentially loaded residential client, or worse, a larger business customer who may have the funds to battle you in the courts.

It’s not worth your time as a small business owner and will likely not gain you anything in the end. If a customer, however, does not respond to repeated attempts of contact that is documented, then abandoned equipment can likely be held onto. From most of my reading on Technibble Forums, as long as there is a signed dropoff order outlining the terms of what defines abandoned equipment, a business owner has the right to uphold them. Again, local law for your location may counter this argument, but in the States at least, this holds fairly true.

5. Keep any soured relationship under wraps to prevent collateral damage. There is no control you have over a customer who rats off to others over the details of his/her failed relationship with you. That’s a reality. But one thing you do have control over is the ability to seal your lips about the circumstances and nitty gritty over why & what happened. Think about it: it truly isn’t anyone else’s business unless you happen to be referring them to an industry colleague (in this case, fair warning is justified and morally acceptable).

But in the majority of cases, it’s best to consider the past just that and move forward. Stirring up stories of past customers with other clients may lead to a potentially dangerous situation especially if that former client is friends/family or even a good customer of the other client. You don’t want to get hit with collateral damage from a good customer that views you in a negative light due to their new-found knowledge of a former fallout. Keep your nose clean and history in your back pocket; you never know when it may come out to bite you.

In the end, remember that you can ultimately turn a bad situation into a positive one. A properly severed relationship with a bad customer will likely save you time and provide opportunity to spend energy servicing the other 99% of your good clients. It’s not an entirely new or foreign concept. In fact, Spring made headlines back in 2007 for dumping about 1000 of its worst customers and had little reservation about announcing it.

While your business likely isn’t in a position to have to drop that many clients at once, the smaller operations that we run make it that much more important that every penny is accounted for. And this means putting the microscope down on every last deadbeat customer on the books as well.



Derrick Wlodarz

About the Author

Derrick Wlodarz
More articles by me...
Derrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist that owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over 8+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him directly at derrick@wlodarz.net.

Comments (9)

  • Derek says:

    I used to have a customer who believed that I was their personal tech support line. She had purchased a used laptop from me. Also, there were 2 call outs. Once to repair her desktop and the other to setup her wireless router/network.

    Biggest mistake I ever made was feeling sorry for this woman in the beginning. The whole thing got out of control and by the end was just sucking the life out of me. Countless hours spent on the phone providing tech support lost. To sever ties, my cell phone number was changed. I have not heard nor seen anything of her since.

    The biggest take away from the whole situation is to separate business from personal matters. You should not get personally involved with a business client. If you do, then you are surely heading towards a toxic customer relationship.

  • bob lou says:

    I used to manage a computer/tv repair shop…a customer brought in a tv one day and I didn’t want to do business with him..so I gave him a high estimate.
    He left and took his set to another shop.

  • Gabe says:

    Last week I had a client who came in with a bunch of questions (which is ok), and I took time to discuss custom build options with him (also ok), but then he started questioning my honesty (about price, about the parts I recommended, etc.). He went over every single detail with a fine tooth comb (to verify that I was not inflating the price or giving him bad parts) and although he was not tech savvy, he was still not certain about trusting my technical judgement about it all.

    After a lot of going back and forth on a custom build qoute he told me to go ahead and order it. Is asked for a down payment, but he proclaimed that this is not how he does business (he’s a business owner) and doesn’t want to pay up front. Against my better judgement I told him that I’ll go ahead and purchase all the parts out of my own pocket once he approves and everything is to his liking. We spent a long time going over all the details again and I placed the $1,500 order immediately after as he needed it “ASAP!”

    A day before the parts come in I get the following call from him, “I decided to change my mind, can you cancel the order?”

    I told him that he already agreed to the purchase, the parts have been ordered, and that there are costs associated with returning everything. He insisted that he, as a customer, has the option of changing his mind. He is right I guess, but he is not the kind of customer I ever want to deal with again.

    After several hours of all this wasted time I finally fired him. I had to pay for the returns, but I’ll chalk it up as a few learning lessons:

    1. Don’t trust a customer that doesn’t trust you
    2. Always take a down payment on a large purchase or a custom PC (even if it’s just to cover return shipping expenses)

  • DavidF says:

    Firing customers is a liberating feeling, I wish I could justify doing it more often.

  • Chris Rahm aka RahmTech says:

    It is unfortunate that Derrick is correct.

    We as business owners strive to make every single customer happy no matter what it takes, but from time to time one needs to know when enough is enough. I do believe here at RahmTech we have fortunately only had to walk away from 2 customers in the 6 years we have been open and I am going to share with you the steps we performed to minimize the need to fire customers.

    The information and/or advice below may be redundant and boring for those business owners that have been doing it for a while, but I hope it helps those just getting started.

    1. Make sure your customer knows everything about the service you are providing them such as the charge, what they are getting for the charge, what they are not getting for the charge, what is possible, what is not possible and what is illegal. In the end, the customer should receive exactly what they expected and as long as you (the technician) did your job up front and explained all the above and completed the job successfully, then you should have a very happy customer.

    2. Document and sign everything. When computers are dropped off to our shop, we sit down one on one with the customer and explain all the above, explain the options, document the equipment being serviced and require the customer to sign it. This protects you from the “You didn’t tell me that…” and “That is not what you told me it was going to cost…” responses.

    3. Document and sign everything (part 2). We also document everything when performing service calls and then require the customer to sign off on the documentation before we leave the service call. This protects you in case a customer calls claiming you over charged, that you were late, that the work was not performed correctly and my favorite, you were never here for a service call. WHAT??? This has actually happened to us one time. We had paperwork and signatures to prove otherwise. We got paid.

    4. As a business owner and technician, you must separate your personal relationship to specific customers when performing business with them. Everyone knows what I am talking about: Friends and family. Everyone wants to be your friend when they need computer work performed because they think they will get a discount. What about those family members that never speaks to you but maybe once a year when you pass them on the street. That’s right. Friends and Family are in my experience the 2 most popularly fired customers.

    A good friend of mine once said to me. You have to charge your friends because your enemies won’t do business with you.

    This is a very true statement. Make sure your friends and family understand it the next time they ask for your services.

    5. Going the extra step. I am just as guilty as every other business owner when it comes to cutting costs to satisfy a specific customer or going the extra step. Sometimes we have to do this to show our customers that we appreciate their business, but as business owners we must be sure not to let this get out of control or we will no longer be business owners. Some customers will expect it every time you perform services for them.

    At the end of the day we all need to remember that our customers are who keep us in business and we as technicians must be able to offer them the best services possible to keep them coming back.

    At the same time, we are not only technicians but we are business owners. As long as we are educated enough to prevent bad customer experiences, the need to fire the occasional customer should be at minimum.

    A mistake is our most valuable tool as long as we learn from it.

    PS: Great aricle Derrick

    Chris Rahm
    RahmTech Computing, Inc.

    • Mark says:

      While this is all fine and written well it is impractical in our business. Especially if you don’t have a multitude of technicians. Most businesses are fine as long as you do it right THE FIRST TIME.

  • Kevin S. Brady says:

    Thank you for a well-written and thoughtful article on a subject that is particularly thorny in these tough economic times.

    I am an attorney, and encounter similar problems in my practice. As we all work harder to acquire and retain a good client base, we sometimes fail to take action with the troublesome clients for fear of losing revenue. It’s also difficult to tell a client that it is in our mutual best interest to part ways, without him becoming upset. I’ve only had to cut loose one client, and it was not a decision I took lightly.

    Perhaps another angle to look at is how can we better avoid some of these problem clients in the first place. Sure, it’s not always easy to size up a candidate, and, like job applicants who interview well then turn into bad employees, we sometimes meet what appears to be a promising client, only to endure trouble with him later. The signs aren’t always obvious.

    But there are a few warning signs I do look out for when meeting a potential client. These questions are not unique to law practice and can be adapted to many consulting professions.

    Is he unrealistic in his objectives, or expect too much?
    Does he fail to understand the gravity of what it will take to solve his issue?
    Does he have sufficient resources (time, money) for us to go the mile in solving those issues?
    Are there unresolvable conflicts between him and his business associates that might interfere with my representation of him?
    Does he want me to use unlawful or unethical methods to further his goals?
    Has he hired and fired previous consultants? (Never will be satisfied)
    Is he overly fixated on cost, and/or critical of my fee structure?
    Does he seem to be merely tire-kicking?
    Does he appear to have a penchant for micromanaging people and processes?
    Does he seem guarded or is not being forthcoming with information relating to his issue?
    And most of all…does something about this person or company just not seem right? Gut instincts are usually correct.

    As I mentioned, I have only fired one existing client. However, I have turned away many prospective clients, usually for one or more of the above reasons. Would I like to have more business? Of course. But I would rather spend time cultivating good clients than be tied up with troublesome ones.

    Cheers.

  • Mark says:

    I once has a company president who has such a big head that he thought I was at his beck and call every minute of the day. There was even one instance where he demanded I come down to his boat in the harbor because his email wasn’t coming into his Blackberry. Once I got there — I noticed his cell signal was too week for data. Then when he received the line item on the company invoice, he refused to pay. So the next desktop I installed for them cost them double … ha ha.

  • Daniel Nelson says:

    Hey Derrik,

    Very cool writeup!

    I run a tech consulting company out of Chicago (TechAngels, hi!) and I basically have my staff fill out a form and submit to the higher ups why we should let a client go and the logic behind it. Definitely like your approach and absolutely advice worth following.

    Off topic, I’ve actually heard of you from a couple of friends of clients of mine. Small world.