It’s inevitable in any business that some users will not be satisfied with what you are able to provide for them, or may become a drain on you or your business in other ways. While I always try to err on the side of caution instead of assuming a customer is to blame, sometimes problematic users happen.
Running your WordPress plugin business or commercial themes shop is hard enough without needing to worry about problem users. Sometimes, especially early on, you may feel that you don’t have the luxury of choosing which clients you do not want to work with. While that’s understandable, I’d challenge the notion by asking yourself if the extra hassle and headache of a problem user is worth your time over finding a better client to partner with. If there’s even a chance that it’s not, for your own sanity, I would go with the latter.
What kind of behavior from users justifies ending your partnership with them? While there are certainly more criteria than what I have listed here, and differences in criteria for commercial plugins and themes versus services, the criteria below are almost universally applicable. These kinds of users are almost never worth your time (and more importantly, your sanity.) The earlier you’re able to catch this behavior and end your relationship with these users, the better off you and your business will be.
1 – The Willfully Ignorant (“Will”)
I don’t understand your documentation, just fix it for me please!
I’m not a ‘coder’, that’s what I pay you people for!
Oftentimes the “Wills” start off rather innocently. Usually, this user will have some kind of a problem or issue that is easily solved with documentation or a few simple troubleshooting steps but will instead ask you to solve the issue for them.
There was a time when I was inclined to help users with these kinds of issues rather frequently… after all, it only takes a few minutes and usually ends with a happy customer. Over my 15+ years in customer service, however, I’ve learned that most of the time the best service you can offer a user is a nudge in the right direction rather than full resolution. “Teach a man to fish” and all that. I send documentation, screenshots, and even video from their own site if I think it will help… but I’ll leave the actual resolution for the users to make with that extra instruction.
Some users, however, are entirely unwilling to learn.
A few years ago I was working support for a WordPress product that was immensely powerful, but also a little bit tricky to set up. Because of this, there was extensive and possibly overwhelming documentation. To assist users with this product, I rewrote the documentation and broke it down into a logical, step-by-step guide instead of a dictionary-like list of features and how those features worked. Almost immediately support requests for the product dropped and purchasing users were generally much happier to have a real guide instead of just a feature list.
“Will” opened a ticket with us for one of the most common FAQ’s we received for the product at the time, covered in the documentation in more than one place. I offered him the documentation link, let him know exactly what the problem was (a malformed shortcode, obvious from the documentation for the product) and even sent him a screenshot of what the shortcode should look like. That was the first of over 15 tickets we would receive in the next two weeks (over one NEW ticket a day!). Every single question Will asked was clearly answered in the documentation. His use case was not special or unique… he simply refused to read the solution on his own.
Sometimes, users like “Will” can in some ways be a symptom of great customer service (it can be legitimately faster for some users to get the answers directly from you or your team than from Google). In the end, though, these users will prove a net drain on you and your resources. With Will, I calculated that we spent more than double supporting him than he paid us for the product, and that’s a relationship that needs to change.
2 – The Belligerent (“Belle”)
You’re an idiot, get me someone who knows what they’re doing!
Your plugin/theme is a piece of sh*t! What the hell is wrong with you people!
The belligerent user is one whose motivations I still don’t fully understand after 15 years. Just recently I had an experience with a user we’ll call “Belle.” On our site several months ago, we’d installed an add-on to our e-commerce system that would allow us to reward users with points they could use towards purchases. At the time, we thought this might be a better solution than a unique coupon code for every single user we wanted to reward, as this process can be quite tedious.
As a result, a small and meaningless “points” section appeared on the dashboard of our site. We deactivated the addon to avoid confusion as soon as we realized that it was pre-configured to display out of the box, and no advertisement or promise was ever made in regards to credits for purchases. Belle only saw this “points” section after making a purchase. It was not a part of her purchase decision, but nevertheless, she demanded that grant those meaningless “points” to her. Since we’re generally pretty amicable, I gave Belle a pretty generous coupon code for a future purchase to apologize for the confusion. After berating us for “deceiving” her with the “points,” she left with her coupon code and I assumed that was the end of our interaction.
Four months later, in diagnosing an issue with our checkout flow, I accidentally enabled that addon a second time. Three days later, Belle contacted us again:
“I have experienced this problem for the last 4 months, yet, I continue to come back. I cannot apply my credits to new purchases. I have mentioned this twice now over 4 months and nothing has been done. You should be testing your checkout process.”
Yes… Belle caught us again in the two-day window the plugin had been reactivated after 4 months. Frustrating, but not entirely unfair criticism. I’d accidentally re-enabled the plugin, and that’s on me. I reminded Belle that the credits aren’t anything advertised or promised to users, and never even had an explicit value anyway. I checked and the coupon code we gave her had never been used, so I politely reminded her of its existence and value and apologized. She replied:
What the hell are credits for then? The effort in working with you is not worth the frustration.
My frustration is just and will continue until you fix your problems and stop defending nonsense.
Do not reply to me.
This user went nuclear on me after offering a coupon code we had no obligation to offer. I did reply to this user again with a warning shot (explained later) to offer them a refund for the product well outside of our refund policy. I let her know that if she continued to berate me and the team, we would be forced to refund the product without her input and end our business relationship.
In her reply, she not only doubled down on the hostility but threatened legal action against us if we even “dared” to refund her and disable her licenses, transitioning her into the third type of customer you shouldn’t deal with….Xavier.
3 – The Extortionist (“Xavier”)
You better fix this right now or I’ll leave you a bad review!
If you don’t add this feature I’ll tell all of my twitter followers how garbage your plugin/theme is!
I’ll sue you if you do/don’t do ‘x’
I’ve learned that experiences with these kinds of users only ever end in one of two ways:
- No matter what you do to make it right, they will likely do what they threatened to do anyway.
- They won’t do anything they said at all.
The vast majority of the time, these users are only threatening you because they’ve been taught that threats are the best way to get what they want. The unfortunate reality is that in many circumstances for these people, those threats work. So many companies practice the idea that “the customer is always right” that they’ve gotten away with abusing companies and the people that work for them for years.
If a user threatens poor reviews/tweets/etc, that’s one thing. It’s par for the course with a business and something you’ll have to deal with on occasion. Try to help the user within reason, but accept that fact that some users will complain and there’s nothing you can do about that.
If they threaten legal action, though, stop and fire them IMMEDIATELY. This might seem counter-intuitive, but lawsuits aren’t something to mess with.
Now that we know WHO we’re dealing with through a few simple examples, you know that, at the very least, you can end your relationship with these clients with a clear conscience.
…And How to Fire Them
The warning shot
Oftentimes our users/clients are honestly not aware that their behavior is deemed unacceptable, and may just need a gentle reminder. The warning shot is probably the most important tool you have before needing to completely end your relationship with a user, so I’m going to offer some specific examples here to help in your own business’ support process.
In the case of a “Will,” my warning shot for our product business usually looks something like this:
My name is Zach, and I’m our Support Strategist. Looking over your ticket history with us, it seems like you’ve had quite a lot of struggles getting up and running with our plugin/theme. I’m really sorry for this, and we welcome any feedback you have on how we can make our product easier to work with.
I did notice that the majority of your requests were for us to make wanted modifications to your site for you, or for questions that are answered in the documentation. While we do offer you the tools to do some pretty amazing things with your site, the use of those tools is the responsibility of the purchasing users. If you’re finding our tool difficult to use, I want to offer you a full refund of your purchase price even though you’re outside of our normal refund window. We want our users to have the best tools to help them be successful, and we’re aware that our tools may not be a good fit for every user.
I wanted to take a moment to let you know that from now on, we will not be making any changes for you using our product, and if we continue to get questions from you that are covered in our documentation, we might have to refund your purchase anyway to help you find an alternative solution that might better fit your needs. For your reference, here is the documentation to the plugin/theme you’ve purchased (insert link here). You should find that it fully addresses most of the questions you might have about the product. Thank you so much for choosing us to help you in your business! Let me know if you would like that refund or if you have any further questions.
A message like the above lets users know, in a subtle way, that they are abusing your support team or agreement. You will find that some users will agree that they aren’t enjoying your product but felt “pot-committed” because of the cost they incurred to use it and will jump at the chance to get a refund. Other users will become extremely apologetic, admit that they’ve not done their due diligence. In some cases, you might never hear from them again (this is a usually a good thing)!
For a “Belle” or a “Xavier,” depending on the abuse they’ve dished out to me or my team they might not get a warning shot (such as if legal action is threatened). For a Belle, my warning shot is as follows:
Working on this issue with you is a partnership…one in which we agree to extend the utmost respect and professionalism to you. We expect the same from you in return. Your recent language is not appropriate in this context, and if it continues we will have no choice but to end our business partnership with you. That said, we would love to continue helping you with your problem if you are willing to work with our team. If, however, you have lost faith in our team or product please let me know and we can offer you a full refund to pursue other solutions for your business.
For a Xavier, this might be more appropriate:
I’m sorry this has escalated your frustration you to the point that you feel the need to threaten me and/or my team with negative media attention. While I can certainly understand that level of frustration, I want to assure you that we are doing what we can to prioritize your issue in a timely manner. Because of this, threats of this nature are not going to help your issue be resolved any faster. If they continue we will assume that we are not a good fit for you or your use case, refund your purchase, and end our professional relationship. Otherwise, please know that we’re certainly advocating for you, understand how frustrated you are, and that we are working tirelessly to ensure a great experience for you and all of our users.
Simple and to the point. Some hostile users will take a step back after this warning shot. Believe it or not, they will even apologize more often than not. Under stress, many users do and say things they wouldn’t normally. The anonymity of written communication makes this tendency worse… reminding users that there are real humans answering their concerns goes a long way. Still, others will double down in their hostility. For those users, at least you have laid the groundwork for step 2.
For Xaviers that threaten legal action, skip the warning shot, and end your relationship. If you have a lawyer, have them help you draft the response.
With customers that threaten legal action, skip the warning shot, and end your relationship.Tweet
Having an official, canned response from your lawyer is worth the expense. Let the user know that any and all further correspondence will be directed to that lawyer and that as a result of their legal threat your relationship is ended.
If you’re firing Xavier for threatening legal action, this statement is likely all you need:
Because you’ve threatened legal action, we’ve been forced to end our business relationship. You’ve been fully refunded for your purchases. Should you choose to continue engaging with us, all future correspondence with you will be answered by our legal counsel.
This is where the real “firing” starts. When you choose to fire a user, you owe them an explanation. What actions have they taken, specifically, that are forcing you into this decision? In almost every case, the warning shot should come first. This should set you up well to explain the reasons for ending the partnership, and the user should (hopefully) not be surprised by this turn of events.
Were they a “Will?” Apologize to them that you were unable to create a product or service that enabled them to succeed. If you’re aware of any similar plugins or themes, feel free to recommend them even if they are a competitor. Make this message about (whether you think it’s true or not) your failure to offer the user the tools they need to help them succeed.
Were they a “Belle?” Feel free to professionally (reserve judgment or passive aggression, stick to the facts) remind them of their words in previous conversations and let them know that the tone and language they used isn’t appropriate or professional and that because of their abuse they are no longer welcome to your products or services.
For a “Xavier,” let them know that threats aren’t something you or your business responds to, and since they’ve chosen not to back down from them that you’re forced to end the relationship. Let them know that you’ll be saddened to see their negative reviews, but remind them that your relationship is bound by the terms of your agreement and that you’ve held to those terms.
Notice every single warning shot reply had the something in common? Refunding a payment is the ultimate act of customer service in that it is both the best way to make your user whole, but also literally the ultimate/last action you need to take with a user to truly end your relationship with them.
Look, I get it… no one wants to reward the “Belles” of this world by making them whole after they’ve abused you or your team. I’ve fought adamantly in my own organization to NOT refund users like this who were abusive to me or our team because I have a deeply held belief that it’s actions like these that reward and perpetuate this behavior in some users. The reality, though, is this: Once that refund is made, you have ZERO obligation to that user from that point on. When, and only when, that refund is made do you owe nothing to a problematic user.
Despite the inner conflict of rewarding their abusive behavior, I’ve learned that the refund allows for a “clean conscience” of sorts, giving you the full permission to walk away from this user guilt-free.
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The last step is to actually walk away from the user. Depending on whether or not you are in the products or services business determines how quickly you can perform this step. Even if you fire a customer for abuse, if you run a service, you need to give them the opportunity to retrieve/recover their data. This is the ONLY support that should be provided to users at this time, and I strongly recommend, in addition to the full refund, giving them a target date when their account will be completely closed and their data irrecoverable. This should be a reasonable time frame depending on your type of service and will vary greatly business to business.
If you’re a premium plugins business or a themes shop, this step is easy. You’re done after step three. Whatever you do, do not get baited into replying to the user again or engaging with them further, especially on social media. I did this one time and inadvertently supported a use case, publicly, for a competitor. I learned my lesson. Ideally, your explanation should have been thorough enough to prevent the need for any kind of elaboration… plan for this as much as possible.
The one exception to this would be if a customer does end up leaving you a bad review. It’s a good practice to respond within the review forum with one simple, diplomatic message that explains your side. This shows other potential customers that you do care about providing a good experience and that the situation may have been an exception. Of course, people will think what they want – but the point is not to get into a discussion about it – share your side once – and that’s all.
The Litmus Test
Above all, even when firing a problem customer, always maintain neutrality in tone (pay extra attention to avoid being aggressive, or passive-aggressive) but don’t be afraid to take a concrete stance on what is unacceptable behavior to work with your team. Be brief and to the point, but also polite and professional.
When firing a problem customer, be brief and to the point, but also polite and professional.Tweet
You may not like my sample responses, or they might not apply to you, your industry or business. That’s totally okay! When I need to write a custom response to a problem user, I try to make sure, whenever possible, that I’m on the high ground. The best way I’ve found to do this is to ask myself before sending every message, “If this entire conversation were to be made public to my users, my customers, and my community, how would the response I am about to send be perceived?”
The reality is that this is likely to happen. Every day, people post screencaps of their customer service interactions on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere. If this user were to do that to your response, what would the comments on those posts look like? It’s not a foolproof test, but it hasn’t failed me yet.
What are some problem customers you’ve encountered? How did you deal with them? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!