The Process of Firing a Customer

Oct. 7, 2021

Shop owners need to be ready to cut the bait when a customer relationship sours. 

SHOP STATS: Keith's Car Care Location:  Oswego, Ill.  Owner: Keith and Diana Wolff  Staff Size: 9 Shop Size: 7,500 square feet  Number of Lifts/Bays: 6, 1 alignment bay and 1 flat used for state emissions tests  Average Monthly Car Count: 327  ARO: $402  Annual Revenue: $1.6 million

As a shop owner or manager, firing is a necessary part of the job. Poor performance, unreliability, and disobedience are just a few of the reasons it may be time to let an employee go. 

But employees aren’t the only people that shop owners may need to part ways with. While many shops are afraid to do so, “firing” a customer is a necessary part of doing business. 

“If you’re in the game long enough, chances are you’ll have to do it,” says Keith Wolff, owner of Keith’s Car Care in Oswego, Ill. “It hurts out of the gate, but it makes more sense to spend more time with people you have as allies,” he said.

The Backstory

Wolff has had to fire, or cut connection with, four customers over his 36 years running the shop. Some of the issues included a customer who would pull into the private side of the parking lot and come through the service bays even after being told numerous times to stop, and a couple that took to Facebook to repeatedly bash the shop. 

“Luckily for us we haven’t had to deal with that problem frequently,” Wolff says.

There have been countless other times that Wolff and his staff have been able to remedy problems with frustrated customers and avoid the need to sever ties. 

The Problem

Cutting off a relationship with a customer is easier said than done. With shops working on tight margins, there’s plenty of pressure to keep every customer. Coupled with the unfair reputation that the industry tries to take advantage of its customers, shops are constantly on the defensive, Wolff says.  

Many steps are taken to ensure customers feel important, but if they refuse to cooperate and become a constant headache for the shop, there comes a time when enough is enough. The problem for shops is identifying when it’s time to cut the customer loose and how to go about doing it. 

The Solution

Schedule a sit down. 

Wolff’s first step starts with a conversation. He’ll bring the customer in for a private meeting and try to work through the complaints they have. 

Wolff recalls a customer who would complain about pricing every time he came in, itemize everything on the ticket, and was overall dissatisfied every time. 

Wolff suggested other cheaper shops that did good work in the area, and also pitched the customer on all the benefits that his shops’ higher prices gave them. After several civil conversations, they parted ways. 

Oftentimes, this conversation leads to a resolution that keeps the customer’s business. However if it isn’t productive and the situation worsens, Wolff will “fire” them. Put simply, this means communicating with the customer that the shop will no longer service the car and that they need to take their business elsewhere. 

Understand you have the power.

Wolff and his staff work diligently to avoid “firing” a customer, but they’ll only tolerate a difficult customer for so long. Many consumers don’t view service industries, like auto repair, as two-way streets. The customer isn’t the only one who has a say in the relationship, and if it’s becoming an issue, make sure it’s known. 

There have been times where Wolff found himself in the process of “firing” a customer, only for them to back down, soften up, and open up to compromise. 

Every shop has a say in the work they take on. Of course, more business is better on paper, but keeping someone around just because of that isn’t good, Wolff says.

Wolff once had a couple who were never really customers. They came in for a couple inspections, but never got any work done by the shop. Wolff sent them marketing materials to follow-up and the customers responded by taking to Facebook and bashing a service that they had never gotten. That was an easy decision to cut them loose, Wolff says. 

“If you’re worried about customers leaving, think about the extra amount of time you’re spending on them,” he says. “It’s not worth it.”

The Aftermath 

Often working with difficult customers can be a very stressful experience for the entire staff, and taking those customers out of the picture can be a big relief. For Wolff, a customer “firing” eliminated distraction for his employees and allowed them more time to invest in and cater to customers that wanted to be there.

Wolff says that relief can also be felt by existing customers as well. 

“It’s a relief for everyone. The employees work better and it gives them more time to spend on our best customers,” he says. 

Some of the customers Wolff initially cut ties with have even come back later with better attitudes. Sometimes the process of “firing” a customer can be a reality check for them and lead to a reversal in behavior, Wolff says.

The Takeaway

Make sure to exhaust your options to avoid parting ways with a customer, but sometimes the move may be a necessary boundary to set. While “firing” a customer isn’t an enjoyable experience for the shop or the customer, the shop will likely be better off in the long run. The time a shop may lose  working through issues with a difficult customer, can be better spent on your “ally” customers, Wolff says. 

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