When a business has to fight for every sale, the idea of intentionally turning customers away seems like sacrilege. In fact, taking advantage of customers is such a common societal trope that there’s a plethora of consumer advocates, ranging from the Better Business Bureau, to the New York Times’ column “The Haggler,” to numerous websites and hashtags based on the concept “YourCompanySucks.”

But as crucial as it is to treat customers fairly and appropriately, it’s equally important not to let them take excessive advantage of your business. I don’t agree that the customer is king, is always right, or always comes first. I believe that customers should be beloved and treated as such. But just as our personal beloveds occasionally cross the line, customers do too — and when they do, businesses should take action.

When Customers Abuse the Privilege

Customers who violate the tacit behavioral agreement with their vendors or service providers are most likely to do it in one of three ways:

  1. Treating staff badly. Employees need to handle difficult, irate, and distressed customers, but they shouldn’t have to endure excessively foul language or personal abuse, such as being called stupid or incompetent, or being threatened. Leaders should be made aware of ongoing customer violations, and should reassure associates that customers’ bad behavior is not about them, and that the company will back up its staff.
  2. Exploiting generous service policies not once, but repeatedly. A small minority of people — I can’t dignify them with the word “customers” — commit various kinds of frauds, from alleging dissatisfaction or damage in order to receive multiple replacements, to claiming that entire packages or specific items were lost in transit so they can receive free ones. Most of these folks will curtail their misbehavior if an associate says something like, “We’re happy to take your order if you want to keep the merchandise, but not if you’re using it and returning it so you can get a new one.” Unfortunately, though, some won’t stop until they’re cut off.
  3. Forcing a business to operate outside its business model. This can be the toughest situation, particularly if the customer requesting the change is an influential big spender. When customers demand extra service(s) or special treatment, they’re providing data about potential market opportunities, but they may also be draining resources and eating away at margins. Before making significant exceptions, do careful cost-benefit analysis for both the brand and financial implications.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Disciplining or firing difficult customers is a bit like calling out a bully: Many stop once they see that you’re onto them. But no business has to be stuck with problematic customers. Here are some targeted steps to take.

Associates must be respectful to all customers, even badly behaved ones, so leaders should model that good behavior for the staff’s sake. Plus, customers who are treated respectfully are less likely to broadcast their unhappiness all over social media.

Verify that your company has already delivered, refunded, or otherwise made good on any promises or deals. Then you can suggest that unmanageable customers might be happier working with a different organization, where they can get the kind of treatment and attention they apparently want.

If pressed, you can declare affirmatively that you’re very sorry to have to say it, but you don’t believe you can ever serve their needs adequately, and therefore you’re required to part ways with them.

The firing can be conveyed in person, by phone, or in writing, but it should be delivered by someone who’s fairly senior, not by a frontline employee, so that it’s clearly a business decision, not a personal one. It will stick better that way, too.

And do keep excellent records of all aspects of your transactions, deliveries, credits and refunds, complaints, and service interactions, just in case a problematic customer ever does contact “The Haggler.”