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Tough Call: The Case of the Toxic Customer

You’ve built your business on a solid foundation with a great team serving a growing lineup of loyal pro customers. One of those customers, however, is poisoning the well for others. What would you do?

IT WAS EARLY 2007 when you were promoted to manager of the LBM company you’d worked at since opting for work over college in 2000. Then the Great Recession hit—and everything changed. With sales at a fraction of what they were, and debts piling on, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Since there were no serious competitors in your market, and since the economy would have to rebound at some point, you bought the assets out of bankruptcy. Several former coworkers joined you in the adventure, and Shoestring Building Supplies was open for business. It wasn’t easy. You and your team worked overtime to forge relationships with your local builders, remodelers, and DIYers, going out of your way to earn their business and their loyalty. As the economy rebounded, your company grew steadily.

Today, Shoestring Building Supplies is on a solid foundation with a great team serving a growing lineup of loyal pro customers. And then there’s Don. Don is disappointed with your company, and he seems determined to spread his discontent among your other customers. You know this because otherwise happy customers are sharing that Don is making a point to complain to them about you.

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“I ran into Don picking up a load of materials, and he went off on the poor service here at Shoestring, and how it used to be so much better under the former owner,” said one customer. Another said, “I’m not sure what Don’s problem is, but there’s something in his craw. Everytime I see him, he’s stirring the pot, trying to get me to agree that you and your team are not providing good service.”

Then you witnessed it first-hand. He was talking to another customer, when he turned to you and said, “This is awful. I needed some fasteners and caulk to finish a project, so I called and explained that I needed the products delivered ASAP this morning, and I was told that the deliveries were all booked for the day, and it wouldn’t go out until tomorrow morning. Not only that,” he continued, “you expect me to pay a service charge when I pay with my credit card. The warehouse yards an hour away don’t penalize me for doing business with them. Why don’t you treat your customers better?”

The last thing you want is to turn away a customer. But the last thing you need is one unhappy customer working to poison the well for everyone. What would you do?

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Fire him. You’ve heard of companies firing customers who aren’t worth the trouble. Tell Don to take his bad attitude— and his business—elsewhere.

Talk it out. Tell Don that his constant complaining is making other customers uncomfortable. Explain that you’re happy to listen and talk with him, but if he continues, he’ll no longer be welcome.

Accept it. There’s always one complainer. Just accept that this is who Don is, and continue to serve him with a smile.

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Surcharge. If you don’t want to fire him, at least make him pay more. Explain that his prices just went up 10% across the board and will remain there until he turns off the toxicity.

What would you do?

If you’d take a different plan of attack, email your suggested solution to If we publish your reply, we’ll send you an LBM Journal mug.

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