Never Miss A Good Opportunity to Shut Up

It strikes me that a service business model that relies on frequently suing your customers is not really sustainable.

My folks out in the field operating campground face far greater problems with customers than any of these petty complaints that Suburban Express is taking to court.  My folks have drunks in their face almost every weekend screaming obscenities at them.  We have people do crazy things to avoid paying small entry fees.  We get mostly positive reviews online but from time to time we inevitably get a negative review with which we disagree (e.g. from the aforementioned drunk who was ticked off we made him stop driving).

And you know how many of these folks we have taken to court in 10 years?  Zero.  Because unless your customer is reneging on some contractual obligation that amounts to a measurable percentage of your net worth, you don't take them to court.

Yes, it is satisfying from an ego perspective to contemplate taking action against some of them.  There are always "bad customers" who don't act in civilized and honorable ways.   But I  tell my folks that 1)  You are never going to teach a bad customer a lesson, because by definition these same folks totally lack self-awareness or else they would not have reached the age of fifty and still been such assholes.  And 2) you are just risking escalating the situation into something we don't want.  As did Suburban Express in the linked article.

The first thing one has to do in the customer service business is check one's ego at the door.  I have front-line employees that simply refuse to defuse things with customers (such as apologize for the customer's bad experience even if we were not reasonably the cause).  They will tell me that they refuse to apologize, that it was a "bad customer".   This is all ego.  I tell them, "you know what happens if you don't apologize and calm the customer down?  The customer calls me and I apologize, and probably give him a free night of camping to boot."  In the future, if this dispute goes public, no one is going to know how much of a jerk that customer was at the time.  Just as no one knows about these students in the Suburban Express example - some may have been  (likely were) drunken assholes.  But now the company looks like a dick for not just moving on.

This is all not to say I am perfect.  It is freaking amazingly easy to forget my own rule about checking one's ego at the door.  I sometimes forget it when dealing with some of the public agencies with which I am under contract.  One of the things you learn early about government agencies is that long-time government employees have never been inculcated with a respect for contract we might have in the private world.  If internal budget or rules changes make adhering to our contract terms difficult, they will sometimes ignore or unilaterally change the terms of our written contract.

And then I will get really pissed off.  Sometimes, I have to -- the changes are substantial and costly enough to matter.  But a lot of the time it is just ego.  The changes are small and de minimis from our financial point of view but I get all worked up, writing strings of eloquent and argumentative emails and letters, to show those guys at the agency just how wrong they are.  And you know what?  Just like I tell my folks, the guys on the other end are not going to change.  They are not bad people, but they have grown up all their lives in government work and have been taught to believe that contract language is secondary to complying with their internal bureaucratic rules.  They are never going to change.  All I am doing is ticking them off with my letters that are trying to count intellectual coup on them.

To this end, I think I am going to tape these two lines from Ken White's post on the wall in front of my desk

  • First, never miss a good opportunity to shut up.
  • Second, take some time to get a grip. You will not encounter a situation where waiting 48 hours to open your mouth will destroy your brand.


  1. David:

    I learned this in my years in retail. Customers can be absolutely unreal in their demands, and sometimes the answer has to be "no", but it absolutely positively needs to be polite. And it's better to have tried a whole bunch of yeses first.

  2. Curtis:

    Working at one of those federal agencies we were led to an offsite where the facilitator explained that 'no' sounded a lot better if it came out as, 'yes, but'. That usually worked but sometimes it was too hard to refrain from sharing exactly how I thought about some nonsense imposed from above. I don't think I ever stiffed a contractor but I did my best repeatedly to terminate our contracts with the government labs.

  3. john mcginnis:

    Couple of observations --

    "1) You are never going to teach a bad customer a lesson, because by definition these same folks totally lack self-awareness or else they would not have reached the age of fifty and still been such assholes"

    I am over 60 and I know many assholes that are over 50 and they consider themselves `intelligent, good natured`. I would be interested if your staff did a poll of your managers and figured out the % of bad experiences were due to alcohol consumption. I would suspect the correlation is quite high.

    You need to add a third bullet --

    * Never pass up a positive teachable moment if it enhances customer experience.

    Those chances come up very day.

  4. marque2:

    It is kinda interesting as well that folks grow up, and most are not assholes at 50 but when they retire, all of a sudden demand everything because they are old. I don't encounter as many of these as I used to, but it can be frustrating.

  5. marque2:

    There is a counter argument. Many folks have figured out that if they yell and complain enough folks will capitulate for fear of their job, and this encourages the behavior to be even worse, and as these folks tell others, that if you just yell at that Nordstrom clerk enough, or the private campground guys, you will get whatever you want, discounts, trade ins for new clothes for obviously worn stuff - more will join in.

    I actually understand giving the drunk at the campground a bit of a break. Probably just came to have fun, had a bit too much, and if you can calm him down it is all the better for everybody, but if you don't take a firm stand against the others, the ones who deceive and manipulate, then you end up with many people manipulating the system and not getting any punishment for it. It will only make the problem worse.

    You can't be kind to evil, it never works in the long run.

  6. MingoV:

    I have a different take on governments not adhering to contracts. Not all cases are due to a change in policy or a revenue shortage. (I saw this from the inside when I worked at a VA hospital.) Sometimes the contractual changes occur because some mid-level administrator needs to cut expenditures because he screwed up his budget or because he wants to get a bonus based on reduced expenditures. Of course, the worker bees under this administrator get the dubious honor of calling about the unilaterally changed contracts.

  7. Not Sure:

    If you reward bad behavior, you'll get more of it.
    Just sayin'...

  8. bigmaq1980:

    The "shake down" approach by Suburban Express just strikes me so much to be like "photo radar", "red light cameras" and similar devices. Most just pay because the inconvenience and cost of taking it to court are far greater than the ticket itself. This, coupled with the presumption of guilt, is a form of legal harassment, only made socially "palatable" because it is in the name of "safety".

    Conveniently for the government, they are easy to deploy and they have a short "payback period" vs attempting to enforce other aspects of the law that affect safety (most of which seems to get ignored).

    I can't wait for technology to make these things so cheap and miniaturized that we cannot detect them and they can be deployed in swarms.

  9. bigmaq1980:

    Many, but certainly not all, in government view the private sector as some sort of group of "vampires". Some make it a game to ripoff the contractor in the name of saving the public's money, with the view that any profit for the contractor is a sign that they "failed". Some, often the same people, don't bother to read the contract and recognize nor take seriously that they have any responsibilities and are part of the "team" in making the contract work. I have seen the good side too, and it was wonderful to work with these people. But, from experience with the others, I now know how $600/$800 toilet seats happen.