Dear Client, You're Fired

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No one is always right.

The service sector makes up two-thirds of the American economy, so almost everyone you know has dealt with a nightmare customer at one point. If you haven’t, maybe the nightmare customer is you. We all have our moments, but some people aren’t having a bad day -- they’re having a bad life and want everyone else to, too.

The idea that the customer is always right is one that has grown and flourished right along with industrialization. It’s an idea borne of competitiveness. If you are selling the same thing as the business down the street, a welcoming atmosphere where your customers feel respected and catered-to is what sets you apart.

The problem is that this ethos, one that affects businesses small and large, is a door for abusive clients to walk through and do damage. Some people, knowing it’s an employee’s job to grin and bear it, will flex that power until they are mollified. The professionalism of the staff is taken for granted. In fact, they are often expected to smile and set whatever feelings they have aside, no matter how little respect they get.

Professor of psychology and researcher at Penn State University, Dr. Alicia Grandey, studies how enforced cheerfulness affects both customer satisfaction and the health of employees.

In an episode of NPR’s “Invisibilia” originally aired in July 2016, the doctor said, “Customers are aware that there's a service with a smile requirement. So it sets up a dynamic where customers are free to act however they want to the employee and the employee has to grin and take it.

“And so over time, that creates a feeling of dissonance, that feeling where your internal state is different than your external expressions or requirements. And that feeling of, like -- wow this is incongruent with how I really feel inside -- you’re having to hold that for extended periods of time. That takes a toll on the body.”

This dissonance can train workers out of knowing exactly how they feel at any given time. The veneer of professionalism has the potential to mute our real emotions and provoke anxiety in the face of unfair criticism or a false accusation from a customer. Your work becomes harder to leave at work. One relentless client can poison someone’s feelings about their entire job.

As a business owner, where do your loyalties lie? If the customer is always right, even when dishing out blatant disrespect, does that mean the worker is never right?

You may have to ask yourself what will have a bigger impact on you and your business in the long run. If a client routinely disrespects your employees, how can you protect them? What’s the larger risk? Is it losing a problem customer, or losing a dependable worker who can’t take it anymore?

In the age of Yelp and other customer-review sites, you may have fears over your reputation if you fire a client. It’s hardly ever the case, though, that one client can make or break your reputation. Positive reviews say more in abundance than the petty vindictiveness often seen in a sporadic negative one.

A recent exception to this rule went in a surprising direction when a wedding photographer was awarded a $1.08 million judgement this July as a result of the behavior of her nightmare clients. Andrea Polito had detailed all charges in the contract the Moldovans signed with her and discussed the matter with them in advance. It didn’t stop the couple from smearing her reputation far and wide, using the incident to promote the bride’s beauty blog in the process.

As reported in the Toronto Sun, the couple had paid thousands already, but the album and high-resolution digital images came with an additional charge. They balked, then took to social media. The newlyweds landed a sympathetic story about it on their Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate and it spread. The Daily Mail picked it up. The bride often repeated that all she wanted were her “memories,” even as the photographer attempted to patch things up.

The story had legs and before Polito knew it, her lucrative photography studio’s business had dried up. She closed her doors, but she sued the couple and a Texas jury found them liable for defamation. They still don’t have their wedding photos.

Will Polito ever see the $1m? Hard to say, and almost not the point: her reputation was restored. This is an extreme example. The world of business mostly has a way of self-regulating. Someone who builds community with their partners, clients, and workers isn’t going to be so easy to tear down.

Do you need a nightmare client? That depends. If you operate with integrity, the answer is often no. Your people are with you because you trust them. Loyal clients are with you because they need you. Optimally, there’s trust and respect all around. But some customers? They’re the kind who erode trust everywhere they go, and they’ll be doing the same when they take their business elsewhere.