Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sprint Fires Complainers: Customers You Don't Want To Serve--UPDATE

Sprint cut 1000 customers today, notifying them my mail that their contracts with the company would be discontinued:

Hundreds of cell phone customers are being given the boot, accused of being too high maintenance.
Sprint-Nextel is disconnecting more than 1,000 subscribers on grounds the clients call customer service too often and make "unreasonable requests."
Whatever happened to "the customer is never wrong"? People ask that until they work in customer service or own a business. There are some customers who are just wrong. There are some employees who are just wrong. And companies who unload the wrong have a lot more energy to expend on the positive.

G.E. under Chairman Jack Welch had a notorious policy of firing the bottom 10% of the company every year. The idea has a flaw, of course. Some managers hired much better people and were forced to eliminate good people, while other bad managers only had to remove 10% of their bad decisions.

A mentor of Steve and I, freaked his practice management consultant out when he summarily fired over 10% of his patients (doctors have a way to do this without abandoning them). There were people he wasn't helping, or didn't connect with, or who he dreaded seeing come to his office because they complained for the sake of it, or refused to consider, much less take, his advice, so he fired them. He said it was the most liberating decision in practice he ever made. His practice took off after that.

Why would firing be so helpful? Well, everyone knows the 80-20 rule: 80% of the people do 20% of the work. The opposite is also true: 20% of the people require 80% of the attention and, that, my friends, is a business killer. Not to mention, it's a kill joy generally.

My doctor friend came to dread the days when Ms. Poopypants had an appointment. Managers with Mr. High Maintenance spend their time reassuring instead of executing. Customer Service reps quarreling with Sir Difficult find themselves growling with everyone else.

In addition to the attitude problems, there's just time. The 20% consume so much time that could be used in other productive ways. So, it can be a very good business and emotional decision to fire the complainers. You'll be healthier and wealthier. Best of all, the unhappy customer can find a better fit and find peace somewhere else.

UPDATE: Seth Godin's first reaction was the same as mine. And, like me (but in a much bigger scale) his readership balked. His second reactions was this:

Before you start firing customers, you better be committed to satisfying the rest of your customers. The giant flaw in Sprint's logic, as many readers have pointed out, is that plenty (almost half) of their customers don't like them. Getting rid of a nasty group of 1,000 isn't going to change that very much.

First job: get serious about customer satisfaction.


David said...

There are indeed customers who need to be fired, as well as employees who need to be fired. But I wonder if Sprint-Nextel carefully evaluated the problems about which these 1000 customers were complaining to see what it could learn about its own processes and the problems therewith.

There are lots of sources of information that many businesses fail to use adequately. Plenty of companies spend tens of millions of dollars on "business intelligence systems" and "customer contact management systems" but fail to gather information from their own front-line people in any systematic way.

Melissa Clouthier said...


You make an excellent point. It is also fascinating how employers rarely want the information from an exit interview, either. They assume they know why an employee leaves. Often, they're wrong.

The most disgruntled, disinterested and frustrating customers and employees often are a reflection of the organization.

There are also people, who, for whatever reason, choose their human interaction negatively by being complete jerks. Just like a lot of elderly go to the doctors to have companionship, I'm convinced that some annoying customers and employees just want to be special, really special, to someone.

kman said...

I can tell you who some of those Sprint customers are... they are the ones calling in regularly to get the best deal on their phones. I know people who literally call Sprint every other day to complain about something just so they have more ammo the next time they are going to ask the CSR to throw in a freebie on their account. Something I've had to learn as a non-complainer is that the squeaky wheel really does get the grease. :)

If Sprint (and most other companies) would just give all of their customers a fair deal then these tactics wouldn't be necessary or useful.

Anonymous said...

kman, i could not agree with you more. while some of what the post is talking about is very true, there usually is another story that is not being told.

Melissa Clouthier said...


I think that's true of employees, too. The innovative, or tone-deaf to the say change, do no change culture (which is nearly every business), or the forward thinking often get fired for challenging the status-quo.

And when it comes to telecom companies, virtual monopolies who don't treat the customers right (I'm still waiting for my DV-R from Comcast, will Direct TV really be that much better?), they often get harassed by the few who aren't beaten down. I nearly lost it the last time I talked to someone from the phone company. And I've done many posts on stinky service.

HOWEVER, I know people who take perverse pleasure in sticking it to companies and make it their mission to make everyone's life hard. This is the guy who's a jerk to the waitress because he can be...

Some people can't be reasoned with.

kman said...

Dr C - You are absolutely right about some "high needs" customers / clients / patients. I only meant to point out one part of the "high needs" group that is legitimate.

Of course I agree that there is no pleasing some people and you are better to cut your losses than try. But if they didn't try to squeeze every last ounce of blood they could get from everyone else it would be less of an issue.

Jerk to the waitress because he can be...

This translates too... jerk to the waitress because he wants something really nasty done to his food...