On the Delicate Art of Saying “Scram”

A few years back I had a customer–I’ll call her “Jen”–who became a problem. She hadn’t started out a problem. In fact she was a pretty good customer for a good long run. Lots of issues, paid well and on time, gave referrals. The only obvious wrinkle was that she was pretty demanding, borderline neurotic actually, about getting things done quickly. As in right now. I was able to deal with her exaggerated sense of urgency because the positives outweighed that comparatively minor negative. Bit by bit, though, Jen began to exceed my tolerance. She started calling right before closing time. Then after closing time. Then well after closing time. Then she started calling on weekends and holidays. Nine PM on Saturday evening, that sort of thing. Sometimes she just wanted a question answered, but sometimes she was wanting a service call. Like NOW. Being past the new and hungry phase of owning a business, I began to demur on occasion. But the calls at odd hours, increasingly urgent, persisted.

Then one day Jen went too far. My girlfriend of the time had a old dog, a sweet and goofy loveable little mutt named Wanda. Sometime in the night Wanda had developed a blood clot. The clot deprived her hind end of blood flow, causing paralysis. We woke up to the sound of Wanda screaming in pain and fear. You could hear it for blocks. It went on for hours. After a few frantic calls to the vet, it became clear that this was most likely a terminal condition. It was turning into a very bad day.

About this time Jen gave me a call. She needed something done and, as usual, she needed it done, like, RIGHT NOW. Throughout our conversation poor Wanda could be clearly heard screaming her little lungs out. By this time I was stressed out and very upset as well, and it should have been obvious from my tone of voice. A normal person would have realized something was happening and asked, you know, “is everything OK?” even though the answer would have been self-evident. Not Jen, though. She just kept on blabbing, oblivious.

Jen more or less ordered me to come by her office to solve whatever the problem was. In my anguish I couldn’t even process what she wanted. Incredulous that she had not detected something was wrong, I said I didn’t think I could make it. She paused a beat and asked why not, so I started explaining what was going on, quite disturbed at even having to do so.  It was like talking to someone from another planet, having to explain basic concepts like dog, pet, crisis, veterinarian, euthanasia, grief.

Jen simply couldn’t handle the idea of “not today.” She said, well, just come by after you get back from the vet. Flabbergasted at her insensitivity, I said something like: “In about an hour I’m going to be digging a grave, and after I’m done with that I won’t be of use to anybody for the rest of the day and probably tomorrow too.” She STILL didn’t get it. By this time, I was way beyond annoyed; I was deeply offended and seriously pissed off. Jen had crossed the line.

So I fired her.

As nicely as I could, which wasn’t very, I told Jen I was not going to be able to help her that day or any other, anymore. After a few seconds of shocked silence she stammered “what . . . what . . . will I do?” I cut her off: Goodbye Jen. And then I hung up. I followed it up a couple of days later with an email, explaining my decision point by point. I was still furious and deeply upset, so it was a tough note to write. It took probably five drafts to strike just the right tone, not angry, not accusing, just stating the facts. Boundaries are important, I explained, and you crossed one I was not willing to let be crossed. I think she finally understood, because her response, arriving a day or so later, was gracious and even a little insightful. She said she was sorry, didn’t know what came over her, and admitted to a selfish, obsessive streak that blinded her to the needs of others. “Sometimes” she said, “you really have to shake me up to get my attention.”

The irony is that Jen wasn’t the proverbial customer from hell. Not even close. I’ve experienced far worse, though usually not for very long. Jen was actually a (mostly) likable and sensible person. If only somebody had given her the right feedback earlier in life, she might have learned to govern her demands a little better, and I would not have had to cut her loose. I felt badly about the way things played out, but Jen had simply forced my hand. It became a matter of principle.

This was not my first time to fire a customer, and it certainly wasn’t the last. But it is a good example for conveying an important point. Too often, people confuse service with servility. Their attitude seems to be: If I spend money with you, I OWN you. Forget respect. Forget boundaries. Forget consideration. Sadly, most of the time there is little pushback because employees are terrified of losing their jobs, business owners are terrified of receiving a bad review, and everybody is terrified of being sued. Out of fear, nobody says or does anything, and so the bullies end up ruling the playground.

There used to be a thing called “manners.” Now considered a quaint and hopelessly outdated concept, manners were a guideline for how to behave in a social, interdependent world. Please. Thank you. May I have another? Does that give you enough time? Boiled down to its essence, the concept was pretty simple: Society is a machine; friction damages the machine; manners reduce friction, thus preserving the machine. I’ll boil it down even further: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. How’s that for a concept?