Why You Should Dump the Big Customer Who’s Mean to Your Employees

August 1, 2016, 1:00 PM UTC
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Practically Speaking is a weekly column that addresses your most pressing business dilemmas. The advice is the opinion of long-time business owner Gene Marks. Send your questions to PracticallySpeaking@fortune.com.

I run a temp agency and one of our biggest clients is also one of our worst. Our employees frequently return from jobs complaining about how difficult it is to work there – the office is dirty and managers are rude to them. Just last week an employee of ours was yelled at by the owner for making a mistake and left in tears. Of course, when I visit with the client they put on their best behavior. But the reports from my people can’t be ignored. How do I handle this situation? Do I side with the profitable customer or with my employees?

I had this exact same situation with a client a few years ago. We were implementing a new software application for them and my lead project manager was miserable. She didn’t like the people and felt that she wasn’t treated professionally. She never claimed there was abuse or discrimination. They were just jerks and she was not happy. I was faced with pushing this valuable employee of mine to continue on until complete or walk away from a profitable client.

We all have lousy customers. And some are lousier than others. The economy is slow and competition is intense. Walking away from a big customer isn’t easy. But here’s a fact: that customer is short-term. And my employee is long-term. Assuming that the facts backed me up (and they did), I knew that I had to stick by my employee. But I had a problem: like the temp agency we were legally bound to finish this project. Walking away would not be easy. So this is what I did.

I got more involved. I spoke directly to the client and told him, eye-to-eye, of our concerns. I told him we would honor our commitment but are prepared to walk away if our people were not treated better. And I followed this up with an email for documentation. I monitored the project closely and took care to act if any situations arose. Luckily, they got better. But that wasn’t all. I gave this employee a bonus for her work and told her I would do everything to avoid this in the future. And I resolved to involve her more during the sales process so she could meet and evaluate a potential client before we engaged her to work with them.

If you can walk from a bad client, walk. If you can charge them more (and share some of that with your employee) then give that a shot. But in the end, always, always give your employee the priority.

Related: Why Non-Compete Agreements Aren’t Worth the Effort

I have four people in my office who handle both inside sales and customer service. They sit right near each other. Whenever I walk by it seems like there’s more playing than working going on. I don’t want to treat them like children but I also kind of feel like they could be more productive. How should I handle this?

I had a client with a similar situation. He was also unsure what to do. Until fate intervened. One of his customer service reps went on maternity leave for six weeks. He didn’t replace her. But he did make a change that impacted the entire group. He moved. Yup, the owner of the company picked up and moved from the corner office to a desk right in the middle of the customer service group! And he stayed there for six weeks. Sure, when confidential meetings or calls needed to happen he went back to the office. But he would still end up spending more than two-thirds of every day doing his work right in the middle of the action. So what happened?

He learned a lot. And so did the rest of the group. After the initial awkwardness evaporated, he could hear when talking or playing was going on and soon came to realize that most of the time it was nothing more than a venting of steam and not a significant issue. But more importantly he listened to the way his people talked to his customers on the phone. Because he was right there he was able to compliment those that handled situations well and mentor those that could’ve done better. He offered suggestions to the reps and educated on other things the company could be doing to solve a customer’s problem that they didn’t even realize. And through it all he forged a closer relationship with them all.

Not sure how a group or team in your company is doing? Join them for a few weeks. Because, when you think about it, what could be more important to your business than making sure your employees are doing the best job possible for your customers. Oh, and you don’t have to wait on someone’s maternity leave, either.


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