Dismissing an unreasonable customer is no small feat. However, doing so taught me the value of setting boundaries and saying no in the face of fear.
In Alabama, the areas where you wouldn’t want to end up after dark are known as the backwoods – even in the daytime, you might want to avoid these areas. I received a call from a prospect deep in the backwoods who wanted a new floor furnace installed.
In the early 90’s, floor furnaces – a box installed in the floor with a grill top – were still used in many properties. The burner heats the exchanger and radiates heat without a blower motor. Like many others, I remember burning my feet as I ran across them as a child in my grandmother’s home.
I arrived at the property, which was set so far back from the main street that you would never find if you didn’t already know it was there. A canopy of vines covered the long driveway. Donkeys, goats and chickens ran around the grounds. Guns rested against the walls of the porch. It was secluded and private – the only neighbors were the woods which surrounded the property. I remember feeling alone, completely removed from the world outside.
Can you think of a job you wish you had never taken?
This was one of those calls.
At 9:30 AM, I sat with the customer as he signed the financing paperwork with a whiskey and coke in hand. The conversation shifted away from furnaces to everything from the Vietnam war, churches and preachers. He even told me about a violent incident with a preacher he hadn’t agreed with. I felt a twinge of fear, so I quickly changed the topic, received the signatures and hurried back to the office.
As time went on, his customer file grew thicker and thicker due to warranty calls. Staff dreaded contacting him and technicians visited the property with apprehension. At the property, the furnace was located in a humid open crawl space, which only added to the warranty issues.
I should never have installed the system to begin with. However, as a company based on loyalty and excellent customer service, we remained true to the warranty of the heat exchanger.
Exhausted by the relationship with the customer, I knew what I had to do. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, so I handled the situation myself.
I remember the conversation to this day.
Roger: Hello, it’s Roger.
Customer: Roger, My furnace is broken again and you are going to fix it. (His voice was always intimidating during these calls).
Roger: Well, unfortunately, it’s out of warranty.
Customer: I’ll come after you. I’ll sue you. I want it fixed.
Roger: I have a better idea.
Customer: Tell me what it is.
Roger: This business relationship isn’t working for my team. We’ve remained patient and wasted unnecessary money and resources. Install a new furnace, you choose the company and I’ll foot the bill. Refer the company to me and I’ll pay the invoice. We’ll sign an agreement that my liability is finished.
He agreed and I paid $1,800 to transfer the problem from my hands into the hands of the competition.
Additionally – perhaps more importantly – I avoided a potentially dangerous situation with an uncooperative and aggressive customer.
$1,800 was a steep price, but I maintain to this day that it was the best $1,800 that I have ever spent. All my employees were grateful. I hadn’t realized before then how much stress this one customer had caused my entire staff.
Why am I sharing this story? As a business, we need to ensure that partnerships are not one-sided. The business offers solutions to the client’s problems. In return, the client provides payments – and hopefully loyalty. If a client’s expectations and behavior are completely out of line with the identity and profile of the business, refer these customers to the competition and serve like-minded people who are a joy to serve. You make more money by knowing who you are and who you serve the best.