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What horror customers can teach us

September 3, 2021

about setting healthy boundaries with our clients

Founder Growth Journeys

Life is too short to make all the mistakes yourself. Hence here is a story from one of my clients. Let’s call him “Ben”, and his company “”. Ben’s role as CEO is to take care of customer acquisition, marketing and customer support. One day he met his  soon-to-be-a-nightmare client "Max", who initially looked like a good early adopter, but turned out to be a huge nuisance instead. Ironically, it was Ben and myself who initially convinced Max to trial’s services. Ben and Max seemed like such a perfect fit for each other - but boy how little did we know... 

Shortly after the collaboration started, we saw signs that Max needed special care. The first "misunderstanding" was him pushing for a 3-months contract, insisting this was what Ben had promised him - obviously there never was proof of Ben making this offer to him in the first place. Ben gave in, thinking to himself that this first, supportive gesture would in the end translate into a good customer relationship. 

It didn’t.

In Ben’s start-up the first 30 days are the on-boarding phase with a new client, and it is meant to result in the client understanding the basics of how to use’s services. However Max was not learning as quickly as others did and as month number one was coming to a close he was still asking for a lot of hand-holding. Ben, despite his better judgment, continued to cater to Max’s needs, since customer support is key in the early stage of businesses and outstanding customer support means being there for clients always, right?!

Maybe not.

It was frustrating. Ben had to revisit the same basic questions again and again trying to adapt his answers to find a suitable explanation for Max. It wasn’t working. Already, Max was taking up more time and resources than expected. Max wasn’t even a high-ticket customer... he was buying on the low end. But since Max was one of the early customers agreeing to test Ben's offering, even though was still in its infancy stage, Ben grit his teeth and stuck with it. The client had taken a chance on Ben, so Ben should take a chance on him, right?! Maybe things will improve, he thought to himself...

They didn’t.

Max wasn’t even a high-ticket customer... he was buying on the low end. But since Max was one of the early customers agreeing to test Ben's offering, even though was still in its infancy stage, Ben grit his teeth and stuck with it.

Max started to become even more time consuming and annoying. At one point Ben needed several days to himself (it was a long weekend and he was busy with another project). He asked Max to refrain from calling him during this period and guess what?! Max did the exact opposite!

When he couldn’t reach Ben during that weekend he kept calling and calling. Ben was starting to get seriously frustrated now. Desperate to get Max off of his back, Ben even spent about 10 hours configuring and explaining an external CRM solution for Max. Again, another free service rendered. And again technically everything was fine, but AGAIN Max kept up his onslaught of annoying questions - at which point Ben and his team coined the internal nickname “horror” or the “nightmare” client for him.

It felt like nothing was working!

After 6 months Ben tallied up the number of calls with Max: 45 in total. Each call was approx. 20 to 60 minutes in length. About half of the calls were directly related to’s consulting services. The other half were calls where Max was requesting additional knowledge NOT directly related to the contractual consulting of Ben was at his wit’s end. Bottom line he had given away, anywhere from 7.5 - 22 hours of his time to this one client for FREE. 

Point Zero.

At the point when Ben was thoroughly exasperated with Max and ready to change telephone numbers just to escape from him…an opportunity presented itself. Max’s service contract ran out. There it was the saving grace for Ben's troubled "customer service heart". This one customer was taking up way too much time and resources and was not adding significantly to’s bottom line (...although, really, how high do you have to price your time to put up with people like that???) As hard as it was to send away a client, Ben realized that this amount of aggravation and frustration was simply not worth it and did not renew the contract.

What did Ben learn?

First thing, he went back to amend his client contract for future customers and included a clause stating exactly how many Euros per hour his additional consultations would cost. 

Secondly, was it necessary to hang on to this customer for >6 months when there were early warning signals? Ben conducted a quick "checklist" to identify potential problem customers faster in the future!

Takeaway number three: As difficult as it was, Ben learned to say “no”. Sending away customers which you worked hard to attain, is never fun. But it is necessary when they turn into a very irritating customer who does not respect explicit boundaries. Setting firm boundaries and saying “no” to client requests that are unrelated to the services they are paying you for, is an important skill to learn. It helps you to stay focused and to strengthen and accelerate your core business. You can't build all features for any given client - you have to be selective in order to keep development speed high and stay true to your strategic positioning.

You became an entrepreneur for a reason. Let me remind you: you actually get to choose who you want to work with. Enjoy that privilege and dare to “break up” with problem customers - especially if they are low-ticket clients!

Building a business is challenging enough. Make sure to manage your energy through carefully selecting the kind of people you’re interacting with during the day. We are social animals and who we interact with has a big impact on our mood, personal development and sense of fulfillment.

Do it now and you will thank yourself for it in the long-run.


Here are some ideas, of how to break up softly with a problem customer:

Parting ways with a problem customer doesn’t have to be painful. Listen to your gut, look for compatibility and trust in the abundance of potential customers and opportunities in the marketplace. Be polite and professional and remind yourself that this isn’t personal. Explain that the services you are selling are poorly matched for the client's needs. You can use a product metaphor to get your message across: “I sell iPhones and it seems like you are looking for an Android phone. Hence I feel I am not able to help you with that problem.”

You can also reassure them that there are other, similar if not identical, offerings on the market, where they can find help: “I’m really honored that you chose to work with me, but we don't seem to be a good fit for each other for reasons X, Y and Z. I’ll be happy to share the contacts of 1 or 2 other companies whose work is similar to mine.” 

Last but not least you can always pull the "too busy card" from your sleeve, when you realize a mismatch early in the sales process: "I am very sorry but right now really is a bad timing. We have so many projects going on right now, that we can't offer to support you right now! In the meantime you could read book XYZ, to learn how to tackle this issue by yourself."

Letting go of time consuming customers makes room to welcome in others who are better suited to you and your company’s offering.

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