Whether working for someone else or ourselves, all of us have had customers we want to fire (and maybe sentence to eternal torment). Since I own my business I can fire a customer. But, should I? Is the old axiom that the customer is always right true? No.
When running a youth sports business you have to decide what your core values are and what culture you want to create. For us, it is everybody plays, everybody has fun, and we keep it positive at the field. We decided that there is no room for over the top parents in our leagues. Building a culture around those values is tough because we also keep score in our leagues. Nothing creates the potential for knuckleheaded behavior like a scoreboard. We walk a fine line of teaching kids that competition is part of life, while also focusing to keeping it fun and about the play. If we fail to enforce the values of our league by allowing a parent to scream at an official, or by allowing a coach to only play his best kids, then our customers will rightly see us as hypocrites and we will lose the soul of our leagues. Ultimately we will lose our business. So, we militantly enforce our league values. Usually enforcement is nothing more than a polite reminder of those values with a request to get into the spirit of the league. On rare occasions those polite reminders are not enough. When that happens, it may be time for that parent to find another league.
You have to be careful because there is a difference between someone who is high maintenance versus someone who is out of bounds. For example; we have a coach in our league that brings a group of neighborhood buddies each season to play together with him as their coach. His kids get equal playing time. He is upbeat and positive at the field. He never argues with our officials or our staff at the field. On the other hand, he usually registers late and wants a discount, is very demanding with our office staff, and sends me long and personally insulting emails about how we run the league. Not a fun guy to deal with, but does he hurt our culture? No. I will be happy to deal with his emails and demands if he treats his kids well and behaves himself at the field. When I get one of his emails, I remind myself that he has a child on the team, who is a really good kid. If I fire the dad, then his son would not be able to play. So, I smile, answer politely, and move on.
On the other hand, we had a coach who bickered with our officials and the opposing coaches, and who consistently tried to play his better players in favor of those who were not as developed. On one game day our official rightly told him that he needed to rotate his kids properly and an argument ensued. I walked over and asked what the problem was. His comment was: “Steve, you guys don’t get it. These young men want to win” (side note: any time you hear the words “young men” in reference to 8 year old kids you have a problem). I politely, but firmly told him that the official’s call was final and he needed to rotate properly. He continued to argue. I reminded him that we do not argue in front of the kids and that he had been warned before. He continued to argue. I told him if he said one more word he would be escorted out. He stopped talking. I turned around and started to walk away and he shouted “this is bull—-!” We escorted him out and refunded his money. The kids on his team came as a group of neighborhood buddies so I thought we would lose the whole team. On the contrary, they stayed. The remaining parents thanked us for standing our ground. If you stick with your values good things happen.
So, be ready to defend your core values like you are defending your life as the life of your business depends on it. But also remember that high-maintenance customers are part of owning a business. So if they are within the values of your league and you can still make money working with them, then deal with it. I mentioned growing a thick layer of skin in my last blog. You will need that thick layer for both of these customer types.