The Perils of Personal Services SMBs: Beware the Angry Wacko Customer!!!


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For those who watch reality television shows like “Hardcore Pawn” and “Say Yes To The Dress”, it has become an everyday fact of life to see wacky customers acting out in small service business settings. Accountants, architects, attorneys, plumbers, contractors, home repair and remodeling companies, and even business consultants and dog walkers can all tell their share of customer behavior horror stories. Being such a business owner can be hazardous to one’s mental and physical health.

Here’s a strange, and somewhat tragic, personal services customer story that would be too bizarre even for a show like “Bridezillas”. It was recounted to me by the business owner who lived (through) it.

The owner is a very successful event planner in Western Pennsylvania. Like other small business services company owners, she has experienced her fair percentage of strange customers, and the sometimes odd and off-putting ways they have of communicating what they want (as well as their unpleasant, sometimes even demeaning, statements when they don’t think value is being delivered). She recently had an upcoming wedding cancelled. In the event planning world, that’s a little unusual, but the circumstances leading to cancellation were drastic and upsetting. There’s no delicate, sugar-coated, or sensitive way to put this – the prospective groom committed suicide.

The event planner had a signed contract with the bride’s family, of course, and had already expended some time and effort in setting up the wedding details when she was informed of this unfortunate event (by the prospective bride’s mother). The mother asked whether the bride-to-be had already made any payments for service, and was told that she had. Acting in good faith, and even though there was no monetary request by the mother, the planner decided, on her own, to refund some of the earnest money to the bride’s family. She did this, along with an expression of sympathy, just a few days after hearing about the tragedy.

No sooner had the check been put in the mail, the planner received another call – this time from the bride’s aunt. She had spoken to her sister and was incensed, furious really, that, under the extreme circumstances, the planner was keeping any of the earnest money. There’s almost no way to convey the level of both emotion and voice volume the aunt was bringing on her call. Simply stated, the bride’s aunt believed that the planner should so deeply feel the family’s pain, and so empathize with it, that much or all of the down payment for services would be refunded. Without any explanation or substantiation for her reasoning, the aunt demanded return of an additional sum (beyond the amount that had already been sent) that would all but eliminate any profit the planner had thus far made from setting up the aborted event.

When the planner tried to calm the aunt’s extremely combative mood by explaining what work had been done on the wedding, there was absolutely no change in her demeanor. The angry aunt threatened to go to the media, and also go online, to say negative and horrible things about the planner’s services unless the required amount was immediately sent to the family. Though the planner gave a bit of reflexive thought to trying some negotiation with the aunt, she reasoned that the amount to be paid was like insurance to protect her image and reputation in the industry from this nut-job family and their threats; and she agreed to send the demanded sum.

When I spoke with the planner and heard the full story, the ‘trust insurance’ payment seemed somewhat closer to a hostage ransom. That said, her rationale for paying was understandable. Mollifying the aunt – especially given the extreme real-time, potential sabotaging pressure coming from an extraordinarily irate customer who, enraged and almost manic, might put the planner’s business reputation at some risk in the community – was, in the planner’s mind, an investment in protection.

So, should the event planner have paid the ‘ransom’? Would you have? What would you have done?

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


  1. It’s such a delicate line in the modern age of instant retaliation or support in the social sphere. I would agree that returning the monies is a small price to pay to guard against the potential wrath members of the bridal party could wreak against the planner. However, even returning the money in full, especially after that exchange, doesn’t guarantee indemnity.

    I think the damage was levelled at the first transaction on cancellation. The partial return of monies, though justified and contractly appropriate, was the tipping point and nothing following this stage of the experience will unring that bell.

    Curious, wouldn’t there be some level of insurance coverage to protect the planner from events such as these, allowing her to graciously refund all monies without the loss to reputation and pocketbook?

    I keep going back to the CX angle. The planner isn’t responsible for the tragedy that evoked the transaction. She’s also not responsible for the customer’s response and resultant actions. She can only control her purview and seek to shape the customer response through her journey. In this case, perhaps if the planner had paused and considered alternatives (suggesting a donation to suicide prevention in the bride’s name for the earnest monies, maybe hosting a benefit through the already scheduled services, etc) even if she didn’t win the customer and ended up returning all of the funds, she would have altered the perspective of the customer and limited damage to her reputation, perhaps even improving it.

    When we deal with people under the influence of highly engaged emotional states, there is no telling what they might do and honestly, we shouldn’t try to guess or mitigate on the ‘what ifs’. Making the effort to get on the front foot, to embody empathy through our actions, is one of the few measures we can take.

    My heart goes out to the folks in this story. Service is not for the faint of heart and it takes all kinds of special to deliver exceptional experiences. The reality is, we can’t make everyone happy every time and making all people happy isn’t always the answer. Finding ways to connect with others in the circumstance du jour, that is the key to the experience.

  2. …and much appreciated. The only contra comment I’d make is that calm reflection on what might have been done is a little bit lof 20/20 hindsight. Larger enterprises often have standardized processes and protocols, and even scripts, for handling customers with extreme requests and in heightened states of emotion. For the small business owner, much of this is ad hoc; and the planner reacted with the best, and most risk-reducing, approach that she could devise at that moment. These are real-world, on the fly, decisions. At the end of the day, the best small company owners can do is make the best available decision.


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