Take a few minutes to think about the best customers you'v have over the years. What do you remember about them—as customers—that you think made them the best? If you're like most service businesses, your best customers usually pay their bills on time, offer you a little tip for a job well done, refer you to their friends and family, or maybe just praise the work you've done and how well you did it.

Good customers leave you walking away from a job feeling happy you did it.

Now think about the worst customers you've had. These folks are never happy, they don't want to pay you, they make jobs harder, they leave bad reviews, they act like their job is the only job you have to do, and hearing them say something positive about the work is like pulling teeth.

Bad customers leave you walking away from a job wishing you'd never met them.

As soon as you realize a customer is going to be trouble, you should start planning how to get rid of them. But first, let's cover a couple things worth mentioning here that might run counter to the way you think you should deal with customers.

The customer is NOT always right

With a service business, the business is the work and services you provide—you are the real product. There are plenty of times that trying to satisfy a decent customer might mean admitting you made a mistake, or doing a bit extra if you realize you and the customer were operating off different expectations. However, we're pretty sure you know of some times where you were not wrong, and a customer was just being difficult. Don't fall into the trap of allowing yourself to get beaten down by a toxic customer—they're only going to consume your time and keep you from meeting the good customers.

You are the professional—you likely know more than your customer does, and you've been doing this for a long time. Trust yourself and your skills.

If you know the job is done right, a compromise had to be made, or the customer's budget doesn't allow for what they want to be done, just say so. Always err on the side of communicating clearly and explicitly with your customers to avoid confusion. Stand by what you say, and walk away if need be. The customer is not always right.

The wrong side of the bed?

So what makes a bad customer so bad? Who knows! Maybe they woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Perhaps they have other problems in life they're dealing with. Or maybe they're just never happy. It could be they've been taken advantage of by another business in the past—or it could be they make a habit of taking advantage of small business owners like you!

The truth is, it doesn't matter why a bad customer is behaving badly. It only matters that they are.

You're not a psychologist and you shouldn't spend your time figuring out why your customer is a jerk. You should spend your time walking away. Distance yourself from those people and try to avoid them in the future. If you're already on the job, it's time to focus on finishing up exactly what you said you'd do and no more. If you haven't started the job and you feel like this customer is going to be a nightmare, run away!

When to say goodbye

Running a small business can often be a headache. When you're relying on earning an income from customers you don't want to be working for, it's going to make you hate the job and the customer. Many times, small business owners get fed up with bad customers and they can sort of pop—they might argue with the customer, leave the job undone, or just walk away from needed income before they've found the next job to replace it. You have to be careful if you're taking your business seriously.

If you continue to work with bad customers, you're going to wind up hating your business. Don't let it happen.

If you start feeling like a customer is bad egg, it's good to know when to say goodbye. Here are the basic questions you should be able to answer before you get rid of the toxic customer:

  • Do I really need the income from this customer?
  • Is there another customer/job to replace this income?
  • Is it going to be difficult to make it without this customer?
  • Are there any personal factors that keep me feeling like I have to work for this customer (family, friend, etc.)?

We're sure you can think of some more questions that are relevant to your business, but the point here is making sure you're asking business-focused questions. Try to stay away from personal questions that focus on the customer's personality or any other such things—you already know s/he is a bad customer.

How to say goodbye

This is the best part. Saying goodbye is often a sad event in most situations, but here ... here it's just therapeutic. There's no magic here—stay classy, keep it short, and let the customer know you're not interested in continuing to work for them. That's really all there is to it.

You do not owe your customer any explanation for why you're getting rid of them.

If you keep it focused on those questions you used for determining when to say goodbye, you can use those answers to help make a impersonal, business-only case for letting them go. An example of a simple business goodbye is saying, "There is too much work currently on the schedule to be able to fit your job in for the next 6 months." The bad customer doesn't know your schedule and doesn't need to know. Most importantly, they aren't likely to wait 6 months to bug you about the job again.

Focus on the customers who help you enjoy your business

That's about it. You're going to enjoy building, running, and growing your service business a whole lot more if you make a point of finding and keeping the best customers you can. There are always hard times, slow seasons, and various other reasons you may need to deal with a bad customer—but that doesn't mean you have to keep them.

WorkWeek's business tools provide you some handy insights into the state of your business throughout the year. You can use these to help you stay on top of just how healthy your business is. When you hit snags like a bad customer, use our tools to check your schedule, quarters, income, jobs, and customers—and make sure your business can handle it when you let the bad customers go.