Don’t burn your bridges: how to fire a customer

You’ve weighed up the arguments. You’ve tried every alternative solution possible first. For whatever reason, you’ve reached the ultimatum: you’re going to fire a customer.

Firing a customer isn’t a The Apprentice-esque finger point and declaration of ‘you’re fired’. You need to part on good terms and mitigate any potential damages from an angry ex(customer).

You need to let the customer go, but you also need to leave the connection with them intact. After all, they might come back to you later, or prove a great partner down the line. The question is how to fire a customer without burning your bridges.



Why fire a customer?

Before considering how to fire a customer, you need to have a good reason for letting them go. We’ve already written about the business case for firing a customer in an earlier article. If you want to read more on the whys rather than the hows, it’s worth starting there.

As an overview, though, you might fire a customer if:

  1. They’re abusive to your staff
  2. They constantly demand things you can’t reasonably provide or regularly fail to pay you on time
  3. Your business is going in another direction, and you can no longer serve their needs

Breaking things off with a customer should always be a last resort. You need to exhaust all other possibilities first. Ask abusive customers to stop with a polite warning. Manage the expectations of unreasonable customers. Offer the features you can provide customers on legacy assignments.

If nothing else works, you have grounds to end things with your customer.



Be positive

All customer service interactions should use positive language, and this doesn’t change even when you’re firing a customer.

Positive language boosts the experience of both agents and customers. When negative words like ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’, and ‘won’t’ are avoided, agents feel empowered to support in any situation. Positive language use also helps customers feel more positive about an interaction — even if it was to deliver bad news like the end of the relationship.

Consider the difference in tone between:

  • ✔ “That functionality is beyond the scope of our services, and it sounds like that’s a deal breaker.”
  • ✖ “We don’t offer that functionality. Sorry we can’t help.”

By avoiding closed, refuting language in favour of a warmer and more co-operative tone, you make the customer feel part of the decision-making process. They’re more likely to feel in control, and less likely to feel rejected. So, when considering how to fire a customer, positivity is a must.



Don’t accuse

When cutting ties with a customer, you need to make the interaction as easy on them as possible. And one thing that’s never easy to take is blame.

It’s not the customer’s fault that they don’t fit your business any more. It’s not their fault if they use features you want to ditch moving forward. Even if you’re letting the customer go because they were too unreasonable, blaming them for the end of the relationship isn’t helpful.

All blaming the customer does is put them on the defensive. This can result in hostility towards you and your company, and a burned bridge as you move forward. Blame is the opposite of mitigating your damages. So, be sure not to accuse, attack or blame the customer. Instead, place blame on you.

  • ✔ “We’re unable to offer the requested features, which regrettably makes us unsuitable for your needs.”
  • ✖ “We can only deliver on reasonable requests, and unfortunately meeting your needs within the suggested time frame is not feasible.”

When deciding how to fire a customer, be sure you avoid the accusatory route and handle the conversation with grace.



Show appreciation

“The deepest principle of human nature is a craving to be appreciated” — William James

Everyone, when it comes down to it, wants appreciation. By demonstrating to customers that you appreciate the time they’ve given you already, you appeal to their need for appreciation. This, in turn, softens the blow of ending the relationship.

Appreciation shows that you aren’t ignoring what the customer has done to help your business grow. This opens the idea that you’re ending the relationship because it’s in their interests too, not just your own. Even the simplest sentiment can soften the parting blow:

  • ✔ “We’re sorry that X didn’t turn out to be the best fit for you, but we really appreciate you giving us a try.”

So, when you’re wondering how to fire a customer because you can’t serve their needs any more, showing appreciation for their loyalty up until now is a great way to start.




Sometimes, the last thing you want to do is refund a customer who has caused untold stress. But, where possible, a whole or partial refund is a good way to give the customer closure.  This closure will help them part with you on good terms — rather than leaving feeling cheated of their money.

This is particularly potent in the case of an abusive customer. It demonstrates that you care more about your team and their comfort than customer money and profit. You put the people first, which will help team members feel valued. Try something supportive, like:

  • ✔ “We understand that you’ve been unsatisfied with X, and we don’t want you to have to pay for an experience you’re unsatisfied with. So, we’ve issued you a refund for this month’s bill.”

Knowing how to fire a customer – and how far to go in ending the relationship smoothly – is tricky, and each case will differ. But remember that the price of a refund is ultimately lower than the price of a damaged reputation.



Apologise and suggest an alternative

The end of a relationship can be tough. Plus, it can cause unforeseen problems for customers who are now without a service provider. So, apologise, show empathy, and express regret for being unable to meet their needs.

In some cases, such as for customers affected by the growth of your business, offer a peer, partner or alternative business that can meet their needs. (Even if that means sending them to a competitor.) Doing so creates goodwill with the customer that goes a long way. It demonstrates that you’re still on their side, and are acting with their best interests in mind.

  • ✔ “If it’s X you’re after, you might want to give Y a try. It’s a shame it’s not ours, but we wish you the best of luck finding the right solution.”

The customer will appreciate the support and still feel cared for, even when you lead them out your door.



That’s how to fire a customer

Keeping your bridges intact when you need to fire a customer isn’t always easy. Handling the situation wrong will undoubtedly mean things end on bad terms. It’s all too easy to throw blame around, or to act on emotion, or to even avoid the situation and not do what’s best for you.

So, show empathy and appreciation, give your customer some closure and remain positive. Just because you’re firing a customer, there’s no reason that the bridge between you needs to go up in smoke.



Useful links

Is there ever a business case for firing a customer?

Feature creep: everything but the kitchen sink. Is your software guilty?

Legacy code dangers: code is inventory