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Identifying a “toxic employee” is fairly easy, as it becomes apparent over a pretty short period of time that the particular work ethic and mindset of said person is just not jiving with the core ideals and mission statement of the greater good. Sure, sometimes they may fly under the radar far longer than they should—posing as wolves in sheep’s clothing—thus creating a whole series of complications needing addressing. But that is all a topic for another day.

Point being, regardless of the time frame for these subpar/ulterior motive-seeking individuals to rear their ugly selves or become exposed by a boss/fellow co-worker, it is universally acknowledged in all businesses that such people exist—and are indeed detrimental to company reputation and profits. With that said, is there such a thing as a “toxic customer,” one equally detrimental to company reputation and profits?

Learning Business from the School of Hard Knocks

Small business owner interacting with difficult customers

My father has had a bunch of his own small businesses for as long as I can recall. Whether it was batting cage complexes, coffee delivery services, private label bottled waters, olive oil and Italian imports, bottled custom sodas…you name it. My grandfathers on both sides of the family tree were their “own men” too, (in construction), and even my great-grandfather had a mobile service in the knife sharpening skill. From his old truck that chugged along quite loudly—genius marketing before it’s time—to the off-hour appointments done at his home-based, makeshift side-door shed space (where blades of all shapes routinely were brought in to be grinded).

As you see, making a living in a self-made trade is in my D.N.A. I couldn’t escape it if I wanted to. The mentality of getting ahead by doing things your way (even if they are imperfect at times), being your own boss and holding yourself accountable were things ingrained in me. All are par for the course when you’re an independent contractor set out to showcase your talents, and when you’re confident in what you do, doing that is the only way you know.


All of the aforementioned relatives recognized, as do I, areas of our own talents. (i.e. those certain abilities to promote to the public—which in turn lead to a completed transaction). Owning that specific trade and not giving up is the only course for an entrepreneurial individual, especially a person not holding a framed degree, but who went to the school of hard knocks.

The hustler who lives well when business is going well (in our household called “making a nice score” or “landing a good gig”), where then the whole family reaps the rewards by being treated to a big lobster dinner. But contrarily when the chips are down, it’s also understood you equally will reach into your pockets a lot of the time and there will be nothing but change in it. That’s “tuna fish time.” The whole scene is not like the steady consistency of the nine-to-fiver who always knows what he’s getting and has the health plan and the 401k. Both sides of that coin have their pros and cons.

Identifying Toxic Customers

Upset customers leaving bad business review online

For many years I was a “street guy,” going from outdoor gig to gig selling meatballs and other foods out of a truck and carts under a pop-up tent. My wife has taken her own leaps of faith in opening up her own health and wellness med-spas. She has her good days and bad days with it, as I always have had with my catering.

Now when you are a huge brand like say, Wal-Mart, you can afford to have a few dissatisfied folks who return their Roombas because they weren’t all they had hoped they’d be. As McDonald’s boldly boasts on billboards of their “billions and billions” sold in burgers, they too have their share of guests who may have an Unhappy Meal. When you have a mom & pop operation, those kinds of losses can be devastating. As in, going-out-of-business devastating. 

Don’t misinterpret my message here, it’s never okay to have an unsatisfied customer regardless of the size and stature of the company. All I am saying is that a big box chain or a mega fast food franchise can absorb these things far easier than the small independent one. The superstores are prepared for it in multiple ways. For starters, they have multi-million dollar insurance policies to cover monetary losses and pay out potential suits. Not to mention literally the buying back of that disgruntled customer with some sweet new offering. (Which, then in turn would actually give them the upper hand even in this instance.) Something must be so egregious for these giants to actually suffer.

Bouncing Back from Bad Word of Mouth

Upset customer standing outside McDonald’s

The Golden Arches, if you recall, took quite a media hit years ago for the famous scalding coffee lawsuit, subsequently settled. Then later with the bad press from the Supersize Me documentary showcasing the gluttonous results of Big Mac overindulgence, subsequently forcing the discontinuation of super sizing. Yet…they bounced back and are still one of the most recognizable and profitable businesses in the world.

When it comes to the local little guys, who even in this day and age still heavily rely on old-fashioned word of mouth whether online or offline, even the slightest of commentary on a product/service leaning towards the not-so-satisfied section of reviews equates to doomsday. One bad word in a comment section spreads even more than it did in the old days—in real time—between neighbors, and then it’s curtains for the company.

To conclude this, what I say here may be a bit unsettling, but it’s as truthful as it can be. Even when you as a business owner know you are right—regardless of the matter—and even when you know that the customer is just trying to snag a freebie…even when you know this is a clear situation of them just trying to take out their day’s frustrations out on you, yes, unfortunately, they are indeed always right. In the case of the local little guy, swallow your pride or you won’t survive.

Dealing with Difficult Customers

Happy business owner talking with customer over phone

The clear-cut answer across the board is that no client can kill any business. How that business deals with a client hellbent on killing you may be unique to the business as I’ve illustrated today. In any event, killing back with kindness is key. Literally the only way. Complaints have to be sucked up (again even when you know they are unfounded), handled with kid gloves, and rectified. Clients—good, mediocre, bad—all are still clients.

The good and mediocre ones will consistently put money in your pocket via their transactions. The bad ones will consistently take money out of your pockets if their demands are not met because your brand will get the label as being unaccommodating. Then, like cancer, this connotation will spread and infect the entire rest of the men, women, and children out there who have not yet entered your establishment. They are called the clientele potential. And once infected, they—as a result of the host complaint carrier who was not cared for correctly—will then contaminate clientele potential. 

Final diagnosis = out of business.

What advice do you have on dealing with bad clients? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.