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Firing a Bad Customer in 2021

Firing a Bad Customer in 2021

How can companies fairly and effectively show an unwanted customer the door?

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Firing a Bad Customer in 2021
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This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

When should companies refuse to work with a customer, and who makes that decision?

I’ve written about firing bad customers often over the years. In 2015, I proposed it as my LinkedIn “Big Idea” for the coming year, writing: 

The Net Promoter SystemSM is built on customer feedback―but if the feedback comes from the wrong customers, then what is the point? Taking feedback seriously from the wrong customers simply diminishes the credibility of the system and alienates frontline employees. It’s time to empower employees. They know which customers deserve a voice―and which ones don’t.

Platform companies like Airbnb and Lyft have made a step toward this kind of empowerment by allowing owners and drivers to rate customers. From my perspective, when customers cross the line, leaders have the right―indeed, the obligation―to keep their customers and employees safe from abuse. It will earn the trust of both critical groups. Tolerating these transgressions, on the other hand, undermines the community, and sucks away energy and resources from the people who deserve them.

One great strength of corporate communities is they are voluntary associations, within which customers, employees, vendors, and investors are free to choose and build mutually beneficial relationships. When individuals fail to make a valuable contribution, or act in a manner hurtful to the general good, they should be held accountable.

So how exactly can companies handle this fairly and effectively? How should employees be involved? Is behavior outside the business relevant? Should there be a process for appeal or reinstatement? 

Companies are beginning to forge models of accountability. Uber removes customers for being physically or verbally abusive to fellow passengers or to drivers. But to ensure it’s making the right choice, that there are no extenuating circumstances, and customers receive due process, it may reach out to confirm key details and get customer input before banning a customer.

Facebook has created an Oversight Board. The 20-member board consists of outsiders including “a Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a British Pulitzer winner, Colombia’s leading human rights lawyer and a former prime minister of Denmark,” according to The New York Times. Facebook has invested $130 million into a legally independent trust to fund the board and its staff. Its decisions will be guided not only by Facebook’s own rules, but by international human rights law as well, and Facebook has pledged to accept its rulings.

How this new model of governance operates will be interesting to watch, and it leaves me wondering what other models for fairly and effectively dealing with bad customers may emerge. Airlines fire bad customers—sometimes for life, as we saw with JetBlue banning a passenger who flew despite knowing he may have contracted the Covid-19 virus. Cruise lines have similar guidelines and bounce unruly and abusive customers. It’s obvious that the old truism “the customer is always right” is absurdly wrong-headed. But what is the right process for determining when they’re so wrong they must be sanctioned? It’s easy to fire customers when they steal, but less clear when they mistreat employees or fellow customers.

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