The Only Time We've Had to FIRE a Customer

The only time we’ve “fired” a customer happened a little over 6 months ago. While this was a difficult decision to make, it was necessary for the well-being and safety of our other customers. Unfortunately, not every family is going to share our philosophies or feel obligated to abide by our policies, so we have found it is easier to let those customers go and focus on the customers that do love and respect our space and our rules.

Speaking of rules, we at Climbing Vines Cafe & Play are big proponents of black-and-white rules with NO grey area, meaning that we work very hard every day to enforce our rules consistently. We currently have a “3 strikes, you’re out-for-the-day” policy, which seems to work well in most cases. Given that we serve mainly families with preschoolers and younger children, we understand that children in this age range can have difficult days.

Therefore, if a child or family is having difficulty abiding by one or more of our policies on a particular day, for example if a 4 year old is continually entering the baby-only area despite staff intervention, we will often give a free pass to that family to try again another day, especially if we recognize that the caregiver with the child is actively trying to correct the child’s behavior and is being attentive.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. If a particular family or customer is getting constant warnings and failing to show that they are attempting to redirect the child or correct their behavior, then we start considering other measures. Something I want to be absolutely clear about here is that 99 out of 100 times it is not the child’s behavior that is the cause of a warning-- nearly always it is the lack of attention given by a parent or caregiver that prompts us to step in.

When it comes to customers that need frequent warnings and are asked to leave multiple times due to policy violations, banning that family comes into consideration.

There are a number of factors we consider before coming to a decision regarding a family:

  1. Frequency of visits. The more a customer visits, the more magnified their behavior becomes since it affects more of our other customers.

  2. Degree to which previous warnings were taken seriously. If a family is making an effort to abide by policies, we are less likely to even consider a ban.

  3. How the family treats other customers. We will protect our other customers at all costs and if a family or individual is confrontational with others we consider that a red-flag.

  4. How the family treats our space. Leaving garbage around, breaking toys, and allowing their children to play with retail items shows a general disrespect that we take seriously.

  5. How the family treats our staff. Disrespect of staff members without cause is taken very seriously and is not tolerated.

  6. How the parents/ caregiver treats their child. A good signal of whether or not a parent is working to correct a child’s behavior is the manner in which they discipline. While we do not pass judgement on parenting styles, we do have to consider how a child’s punishment affects others around them. Spanking and hitting are red-flags to us that cause us to consider a ban and perhaps even contacting the appropriate authorities.

After considering all of this with the particular family that we did end up banning, we came together as a team to finally say “no more” after about 8 long months of this family really causing a severe disruption in our other customers’ experience.

Over that period we even had staff threaten repeatedly to quit. You can watch this video for more details but in-summary, some examples of specific behavior that led to our decision (and all of these were done repeatedly over 8 months despite multiple warnings) was:

  • Coming in repeatedly during private events

  • Eating food inside the play area

  • Allowing an older child in the 18-months and younger area

  • Not wearing socks inside the play area or removing socks

  • Allowing their child to throw toys and hit other children without attempt at correction

  • Constant phone use which led to the caregiver being unable to correct behavior as needed

  • Allowing their child to play with retail items to the point they could no longer be sold, resulting in significant inventory loss

  • Allowing their child to play when visibly or audibly ill

  • Complaining daily about temperatures inside the facility, both hot and cold

So once we considered the factors listed above, here is how we went about the actual “banning” process. First, I as the owner, personally reached out.  Because I understand that parents can be very protective and defensive (as they should be!) of their children, I made sure to specify clearly that the reason for our concerns was NOT at all the child’s behavior but rather the parents’ behavior listed above. I explained how other customers were repeatedly disrespected, and put in danger as a direct result of this parents action and lack of action.

And, because words can get misconstrued, I put this all in writing.

I did not ban the family right away, but instead required that we have an in-person meeting and review both security video footage we had of the above behavior AND customer-supplied video footage of incidents that had been sent to us BEFORE their membership would be allowed to continue.

I mentioned that the behavior the tapes would show was unacceptable and wanted to, in conjunction with them, come up with a plan so we could all enjoy the facility together in a safe way that did not disrupt everyone else’s experience.

Unsurprisingly, they chose to not take the meeting and we discontinued their membership and alerted staff that they were not to be admitted. We gave them a refund on remaining months.

Since we discontinued their membership, both staff and customer morale is WAY up and we had customers go out of their way daily for many months afterward to thank us for discontinuing the membership (while we did not divulge any details out of respect for the family’s privacy-- it was quite obvious to the regular customers who had seen the family daily for many months).

We also contacted customers who had voiced concerns and complaints over this particular customer and they began coming back, happy and grateful to know their voices were heard and that the environment was once-again safe and welcoming for them.

To wrap things up, I wand to share some of the lessons I learned in this process, because there are absolutely some things I wish I’d handled differently and will do so should this ever happen again.

  1. Not every person is right for every space. I should have discontinued the membership months before I did and would not have lost some great customers had I did. This particular family needs an unstructured space with more flexibility and less rules and it was just never going to be a good fit.

  2. Rule breakers will continue to push. If you let someone get away with breaking one rule, it wont stop there. They will take that as a sign that they can break any and all rules and WILL continue to get away with whatever YOU let them. It may seem easier in the moment to look the other way but the issues imposed by the rule-breaking will compound and worsen over time-- so enforce all rules you have consistently.

  3. Sometimes handling things in person is best. I wish I had the opportunity to sit down with this family so they could see what I saw in the video footage and WHY we were so concerned. A lot of the times the mother had her head down in her phone and was not seeing her child’s behavior, so she was unaware of the incidents I wanted to discuss. I should have proposed an in person meeting much sooner.

  4. Speaking of an in-person meeting, always have evidence. If we did not have a surveillance system with 30 days of recorded footage, we would have had to take one customers word over another’s, which I do not like to do. Having irrefutable evidence definitely made me feel confident in my decision.

  5. Protect your employees and customers at all costs. As mentioned in lesson #1, not all families will be a good fit for every facility, and that’s OK. Identify which families fit best with your businesses values and mission (a mistake I made is thinking our “best” customers were the ones who spent the most time and/or money with us) and focus on creating the best space for THOSE customers. “Breaking up” with customers that severely disrupt the experience for your aligned customers is a reality of this business and while it should not be taken lightly, it sometimes MUST be done. You and your business will be better for it.





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