Kickstarter Lesson #195: When Should You Fire a Customer?

21 July 2016 | 120 Comments

In a surprising move 9 years ago, Sprint fired more than 1,000 of their customers. They contacted those customers to say that their contracts would expire in a few months, and they would need to find another mobile provider.

Why would a company “fire” their customers? Aren’t customers how companies stay in business?

Here’s what Sprint revealed: Those 1,000 customers were calling Sprint’s customer service line about 40,000 times a month. That’s an average of 480 calls per person each year!

Sprint realized that by spending such a huge amount of time on those customers–customers who, it seemed, were asking the same questions over and over and were never going to be satisfied with the answers–their customer service team was neglecting their other customers. Plus, if you’re paying customer service reps to answer 40 calls a month from the same person, you’re losing a lot of money on that customer.

I think they made the right decision.

***

I never want to fire a customer. I get no joy from it, nor do I want customers to fear being “fired.” I love the vast majority of my customers, even those who are bluntly critical. These are extreme edge cases, the 0.01% that get in the way of me being at my best for the other 99.99%.

Just to be clear what “firing a customer” means for a company like Stonemaier Games, it usually equates to me removing the customer from our e-newsletter list. There’s really nothing to stop anyone from backing one of my Kickstarter projects. At best, after the project is over, I can refund their pledge, removing them as a backer. That’s exceptionally rare.

Here are the types of things that will motivate me to “fire” you (or, as a commenter called it, “customer stratification”):

  • If you’re racist, sexist, bigoted, or a complete jerk to me or other backers. I once got the nastiest message from a backer in central Europe accusing me of being an ignorant American and making his shipping fee higher than backers in western Europe (which, of course, is simply how courier rates in Europe are priced). It was actually so nasty and bigoted that I reported it to Kickstarter.
  • IMG_2035If you’re unreasonably picky to a costly extreme. I got a message from a Scythe backer recently who asked for a replacement box. To the right you can see a photo of the “damage,” the slightest wrinkle on one of the corners. I wrote him back to say that at best we could offer him a $15 refund, and he replied to say that $50 would be more appropriate. $50! That was a clear signal to me that there was too big of a gap between our perspectives.
  • If you’re a troll. If you frequently troll forums to shout about how you hate things (particularly–but not limited to–my games), well, you can do that all you want. I believe in free speech. But if that’s the type of thing that makes you feel good about yourself, you’re not a good fit for Stonemaier Games.

***

There’s one more type of customer who simply isn’t prudent for me to retain. This is the expensively negligent customer.

Let’s say that you run a Kickstarter campaign for an expensive, heavy game. You offer a money-back guarantee, with the intent being that if backers have financial hardship or if they play the game and don’t like it, they can send it back for a full refund (including shipping both ways). Over the next 7 months, you hear from about a dozen backers who ask for refunds, and of course you provide them.

Finally you start fulfilling rewards. One US backers receives his game, and as soon as he receives it, he emails you to say he wants to return it for a refund. You oblige, of course. When it arrives at your office, you’re surprised to find that it’s an unopened, mint-condition Collector’s Edition.

You’re not mad at the customer. After all, even with the $35 total shipping costs to and from that backer, you can still sell the game at a profit. But knowing what you do about this customer–that they needlessly cost you $35 on a game they could have just cancelled before you shipped it–is it prudent for you to sell more games to that customer in the future?

(and yes, I’m talking about Scythe)

***

What do you think about this concept? I figure it might be offputting to some people, especially coming from someone who proclaims to be inclusive, not exclusive. But sometimes I’ve had to draw a line, and this is where I draw it.

120 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #195: When Should You Fire a Customer?

  1. I enjoy reading your blog posts. Also, can I become a new customer and purchase that collector’s edition of Scythe that got sent back unopened? Haha

  2. I’m surprised Kickstarter doesn’t offer the ability to block an account – it seems like that would likely solve some problems (though in the interest of transparency, maybe it’s an issue).

    Given that you run your own customer service, I can’t imagine how difficult it is to have to answer things more than once from one person – let alone having 10-20 people eating up 10% of your time.

    Seems fine to be able to “fire” a customer (I’ve done it, when I used to work in real life), as long as there’s an understanding as to what constitutes that kind of thing. It’s a little cynical, but there are lots of customers and only one you, so you’ve got to protect and care for yourself.

    1. Yeah, I wish they would allow that, though I can also see some slippery slope issues could result from it.

      I really like this: “there are lots of customers and only one you, so you’ve got to protect and care for yourself.” I think that’s really important, especially considering that I can serve customers so much better if the 0.001% isn’t weighing me down.

      1. I think it probably depends on the fact that KS doesn’t consider backers as customers.
        If you only think of them as contributors, there’s no reason to reject them (in KS creators mind).
        Or they didn’t think about this possibility at all…

        1. Also any contributor blocked from contributing, is all the less money Kickstarter gets, even though Kickstarter doesn’t have a direct relationship with these individuals.

  3. Trying to work out why ANYONE would return a collectors edition of Scythe!! Maybe something really bad happened in their life and they needed to cut back costs and get cash asap. But, I reckon if they’d approached you in an open way about why they were getting a refund they wouldn’t be on the list above.

    1. Stephen: Yeah, I refunded about a dozen backers (maybe more) since November 5 who either realized they wouldn’t be able to play the game or who needed the money for more urgent matters. That I completely understand. But I don’t understand or appreciate that the customer would have waited until after he got the game to make that decision (if it was a matter of personal finance). Even if it’s a case where he didn’t know it was coming because he didn’t subscribe to any of our our many notifications, that still doesn’t help his case as a future customer.

      1. The only possible justification I can see is that a friend of his also backed the game, and either he didn’t know that (and didn’t see a need for them to both own copies), or he played his friend’s copy of the game before opening his own, and decided that it wasn’t for him. I’m hoping this is the case, just because I want to believe the best in people, and for you to have not wasted your money needlessly.

        Still, pretty foolish of him to return it to you, whereas he could have easily made a tidy profit off of reselling it himself.

          1. You’re a fair man Jamey, and most of those cases above are fair enough… Though think you’re being particularly unfair with this one.

            You don’t know the circumstances of why the copy was returned to you unopened… But at the end of the day, does it matter? It’s your own policy that enables that behavior. You can’t penalize someone, or ‘fire them’ for taking you up on that policy.

            I understand the frustration and expense on your behalf… But it’s your policy.

            I think it’s rather plausible that the person did play scythe, realized it wasn’t for them, took you up on your policy and decided they might be doing YOU a favor by leaving it in pristine condition to be resold.

          2. Manny: That’s true, it is my policy, and I’m happy for people to use it. That doesn’t necessarily make them a good customer, though, and that’s how I evaluated the situation.

    2. Box arrives at home, spouse opens it while other is at work. Working spouse comes home, fight progresses into cost of said game, fight ends with ultimatum to send it back. Jamey gets an unopened game and a $35 dollar bill.

      I think the policy of flagging this customer for the future is your best course. Exploring the progression of costcos full refund policy would prolly be the best source for evaluating if yours is doing the best it can gor you.

  4. Casey beat me to the punch! I want to buy that copy from you at your retail price!

    I’m actually struck by publishers in this industry really going above and beyond what I think is reasonable when it relates to replacing pieces, etc. I don’t think producers in other areas have the same expectations placed upon them by their customers. It’s admirable what you and other publishers do, but I will continue to feel that it is all above and beyond.

  5. I think businesses (and good customers) everywhere would be better served by businesses willing and ready to cut the cord on bad customers. Investing so much time and energy into individuals that will never be happy or always find fault hurts everyone. May as well give them something to actually complain about. And the silly little man who returned the unopened collector’s edition copy obviously didn’t even bother to google how much he could have made easily another $150 on top of purchase price for offering it up on ebay. That is the good thing about bad customers – usually get some amusement out of the silly decisions they make.

    1. Katherine: “Investing so much time and energy into individuals that will never be happy or always find fault hurts everyone.” I completely agree!

      As for the customer who could have sold his copy at an instant profit, a part of my wonders if he bought the game purely for the purpose of costing us money (or to test our money-back policy). I really hope it wasn’t that, as that’s pretty dark, the thought crossed my mind.

  6. Having worked in retail for 20 years (thankfully I’m out), I know all too well the value of “addition by subtraction” when it comes to customers. Some folks just have no idea how the real world works and what is reasonable. Those people can never be pleased, and it’s usually best to just part ways.

    1. Gary: “addition by subtraction” Exactly! Yeah, sometimes I realize that nothing I do is going to please a customer, and when I realize that, it’s better for both of us for me to just stop trying.

  7. I think it’s timely! I’m a terribly patient person, I can put up with a lot of crap and long term beatings, especially when its for a good cause. A little Captain America sorta thing “I can do this all day.”

    But… I have 1 backer who refuses to fill out the pledge manager, but still wants his dice. I’m trying to figure out how that’s supposed to work. It’s been going on for MONTHS. He’s threatened me with legality, etc. I’m like… dude… I need your address and to know what you ordered! He refuses. In the words of the Republican Party’s nominee: YOU’RE FIRED!

    I also have, since we’re still growing, a “No refunds until you’ve received your game” policy; it exists to make sure, since we budget zero profit in our campaign goals, that we can fulfill our promises. But I’m starting to reconsider it based on the Kickstarter Terms of Service: “Once you refund a backer, your obligation to them is fulfilled.” *drool*

    You couldn’t possibly have posted this in more timely fashion. And since you posted it, I see you’re going through what I am. Self-entitled backers trying to be exceptions that break rules, systems, budgets, and common decency. I, therefore, am sorry you have to be going through this too. *bro-hug*.

    p.s. Your items, James, post in about 2 hours. All packed up and waiting pickup. Hopefully they cheer you up.

    1. John: That is so weird. How does the backer expect you to ship him anything if he won’t give you his address?!

      Yeah, I do like those new Kickstarter terms. That’s why on very rare occasions I’ll cancel a backer’s pledge and refund their pledge amount. You don’t own them anything after that, as your obligation to them is fulfilled. I don’t do that out of the blue–they know it’s coming, and I’ve only done it once or twice.

  8. I think if Jamey Steigmier fires you as a customer, then you need to take a long hard look in the mirror. I applaud you getting rid of the ngstivity do you can spend your time positively!

  9. I can relate as I stay up late making tabletop wargames terrain to auction/commission and have to deal with all manner of similar folk.
    Just the same, I also host a tabletop gaming club at the local library (and I’m always flat broke, the terrain money goes towards bills), so if you’d like to donate one of those horribly damaged games…

  10. Did you ask that last case about why he returned it? Or does that violate the “no questions asked part of the policy”. I can think of a few legitimate reasons… Financial hardship.. A friend received the game and he played that copy and then realized it wasn’t for him. I would think getting back an unopened copy of the game is better that one that’s been rifled through. Just playing devil’s advocate here. I love my copy!

    1. Yeah, we have a no-questions-asked policy. If he had financial hardship, he could have easily told me in the 7 months before the game was shipped to him. Perhaps the second situation was true, but he received it on one of the first days that any US backer received their game.

  11. I am late to the whole Kickstarter game and never got the opportunity to back one of your projects (although Scythe looks gorgeous). I cam upon your article via TBG on Facebook. I gotta say, my eyebrows were instantly raised and I expected to read the article and declare to never buy a game from your company. However, after reading the article, not only is it darn good, but as a 15 year Customer Service vet, I agree with Every. Single. Point. Now I am even more intrigued by your company as you seem to have your values intact and values on point. Someday when i scrape some cash up, I will be grabbing Scythe.

    1. Keva: I’m intrigued by your initial reaction to the subject line. I probably would have worded it differently if I thought it might provoke such a strong reaction. May I ask what you thought I was going to say after you read that title?

      1. The subject accurately captured the sentiment of the post. For my part, I have been drenched in Customer Service for years and back when I was a Supervisor I would constantly have reps come up to me and state they should be allowed to terminate calls or add customers to our “no-call” list blocking them from calling back in. I was expecting, to be honest, just a bunch of grumblings of how difficult it is to make some people happy. When I moved and and worked for the Social Media side of our company and fielded those complaints and BBB issues I had to learn that you can NEVER shrug a customer off. However, your article was well termed and pretty much summed up my feelings regarding that issue (because I firmly do believe there are some people who just want to cause problems or complain). Honestly, I am not sure what I was expecting but your post was excellent and I actually emailed it to my old boss saying “this is what I tried telling you…but, well, y’know – well termed. And replace board games with shoes and you this applies to your company”.

        Anyway, it was an excellent read. thank you.

        1. Thanks for following up, Keva–I appreciate that. “there are some people who just want to cause problems or complain” That’s my experience too. Fortunately there are very few people like that in the big picture!

  12. Very well written. Valid points and much respect to your opinion here. I don’t think you are even somewhat off. More people need to stand up for what they believe in and show more integrity. Something I know Stonemaier Games (more so you Jamey) have a lot of. Unfortunately I didn’t know about Stonemaier until it was too late to back Scythe but I’ve played Euphoria and loved it and cannot wait to play all your games. You bet I am picking Scythe up in Aug. (only to request an immediate refund for dissatisfaction of course!)

  13. Man. My box cover was worse than that – but there was an accident in the shipping transit (that delayed delivery.

    I say worse and I mean minutely worse.

    I looked at it and said “Meh. Similar damage could Happen taking the game out of the closet. No biggie!”

    You are 100% right in firing these customers.

    Companies can lead in cost, quality, and service. Yours is absolutely an industry service leader, and the quality of your games is top seed as well (contending with a couple others for #1.)

    Yours is not the value lead. You don’t sell the cheap low budget economy grade junk.

    The companies that do are about the only ones who can’t afford to fire customers, because their customers aren’t looking for top quality, and they can’t usually afford to maintain the service to entice new customers on service alone.

    1. Jared: I very much appreciate you being forgiving about the box damage. I’m always happy to help customers who have damaged boxes, as I know that what is just cardboard to some people means a lot more to others. We almost always come to an agreement that’s fair to both parties–it’s a rare exception when that doesn’t happen.

      I like what you say about quality!

      1. It was pretty much insignificant. I’ve gotten one before from an online retailer where the box was broken/split. You were easy to work with on that resolution – AND I got to buy some extra viticulture coins at the same time! That interaction sold me on your service and then when we played the game I was sold on the company.

  14. Of course you are right. But then again, I have all of the Stonemeier games and like a refund on all of them due to wrinkles that I viewed with the use of a microscope.

    I can only imagine the demands placed on publishers by people.

  15. Jamey,

    Just two things…

    First, to echo the comments from Katherine. We would be well served by companies firing more of their “customers” – the Marines carry their wounded, but too many countries tries carry their dead.

    Also, kudos to biffta… I LOL’d and my daughter, to whom I read your post said, nobody should treat Jamey that way!

    Cheers,
    Joe

  16. I appreciate your point of view and your perspective on these issues. I enjoy all that you do in/for the industry, however this post left me with a negative feelings and that is not something I normally associate with Stonemaier Games.

      1. Sure thing. First, I want to say that I think you are singlehandedly changing (for the better) board games in the US. You are setting the bar that everyone else aspires to. On top of that, you spread so much good will and positivity within the community that it is difficult to see you or the Stonemaier brand in anything other than a positive light. And so when I come here and read about you “firing” customers, regardless of the reasons, it sours that image. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I realize this is largely due to my perception being somewhat shattered, when the reality is that you are human and don’t want to deal with certain things just like everyone else. It is kind of like when bad things happen at Disney World. It is difficult to imagine something terrible happening at “The Happiest Place On Earth”. The two things just don’t align. For me, I agree with Manny in that you set a policy and now you are griping about fulfilling it. It is just something I wouldn’t have expected from Jamey Stegmaier. You don’t know the situation, and sure, if it was explained to you it might make you feel differently, but your policy is no questions asked. Therefore, he isn’t in the wrong and shouldn’t feel bad or be removed from your email list for doing what was well within his rights. There could be any number of reasons for the return, and some of them could make you retract your opinion of the matter and possibly apologize. Of course, there are plenty of crummy reasons as well, which might drive one to drinking and swearing. But those reasons aren’t for you to know. Either way, he is not in the wrong. So that’s my personal beef. Aside from that, most of your posts leave me either with new information about Kickstarter, the board game industry, good customer service, etc or they otherwise resonate positively with me. While reading your posts I find myself nodding my head, sometimes talking out loud, saying things like, “Yep, that’s how you do it”. If it isn’t new information, I at least feel good. I enjoyed the post and felt good while/after reading it. This post, however, shows a negative side and that goes against my perception of Stonemaier. Nothing major, I will still support you and fully endorse your products, but for me this is kind of like finding a hair halfway through a meal I was enjoying.

        1. Thanks for sharing this, Richard. I can confirm that I am human. :)

          You may have seen my response to Manny. Both of you have a valid point: I have a money-back guarantee, and there’s nothing wrong with a customer using it. Totally cool.

          But is there anything wrong with me picking my customers? And if that’s okay, wouldn’t it make sense that might not pick the customer who needlessly cost me $35? Instead of risking a future loss on that customer, why not just focus on other customers who don’t have that risk?

          As I mentioned in another comment, there are dozens of Scythe backers who asked for a refund during the last 7 months for a variety of reasons. Within minutes I sent them their refunds, I made sure to assure them that there was nothing wrong with them asking for such a thing, and they’re still on my mailing list. There might be other customers in the coming weeks who receive their copy of Scythe, play it once, realize they’re never going to play it again, and they ask to return it. That’s totally cool with me. Those are customers I’ll gladly welcome back in the future.

          Also, that’s just one of four categories I mentioned in this post. People seem a little fixated on that one, even though the others are more common.

          1. I think people are fixated on this one in particular because it is the only one that seems off. The others we can all fully understand, but this one doesn’t seem to add up. It breaks character for you. But, yes, you have the right to pick and choose your customers, however, I believe that some things are best left unsaid. As in, it is your right to do so but I don’t really want to hear about it. It is all about the image/perception and if that is marred in anyway. For me, you can’t say it is “totally cool” and “nothing wrong” with it, but then say they aren’t your type of customer in the same breath. Those two statements are not congruent. It seems like you are, for some reason, upset by the fact that the game was unopened. Or perhaps that his timing didn’t align with yours. If you are okay with others returning copies of the game that they have opened and played, why not this gentleman? Why is he singled out?

          2. Richard: I think the best way I can say it is to ask you the same question. Put yourself in my shoes. Say you sold me something that cost about $17 to ship, and you offered a money-back guarantee. The moment I receive the item, before doing anything with the item, I e-mail you and say I want to take you up on the money-back guarantee, and it costs you about $17 to ship back to you. Is there any possible good business logic in you selling that customer something else in the future?

          3. No, probably not. However, I can think of two instances where you’d want him as a customer. Either way, I wouldn’t promote my decision.

            1. He tells everyone he knows about the great customer service he received and converts family and friends into customers for you.

            2. By servicing him gracefully, your positive image is upheld, thus saving face and upholding your superhuman persona.

            Also, you can’t predict future performance by past performance. I try to give everyone one pass (maybe more). Mistakes and unforeseen circumstances happen. I try not to hold that against people. Now, if he does it again, and then again, sure, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with you “firing” him.

            At the end of the day it is completely your choice and I don’t fault you for it in the slightest. I just thought this post was a little more negative than I’m used to reading on your blog. And that too is okay, everyone is allowed to be human, but I wanted to share that my feeling after reading this post wasn’t the usual positive feeling that I associate with Stonemaier Games. Nothing more; just one person’s opinion.

            Keep doing what you do as it is amazing and I am truly thankful that you exist and are able to share your wonderful board games with the world.

        2. This was an interesting comment to read…

          I don’t usually comment but…

          While I am not in the board game business (yet hopefully), I am a Sales Manager for one of the largest Auto Groups in the country. You referred to Disney in your comment… our owner actually went to Disney and met with a large group of their executive team to tour the facility, talk philosophy of the company and how they handle employees and customer’s alike in situations like this. Its one simple answer… if you are an employee and or customer and come into issue with the company that can’t be resolved or that they don’t want to potentially revisit with you in the future then they “reserve the right to ask you to find your happiness elsewhere.” What Disney is great at is handling their business internally. I think this article was really just a glimpse of what is behind the shiny, fun feel you see of many businesses. That one simple statement from Disney is a 50,000 ft view on how they run things.

          In my opinion, it’s a reflection of standards. What I strive to teach my team is that first we set our standards, then we hold to our standards, and if there is a straggler we raise them to the standards. Likewise with our customers… in my auto group we work hard to change the culture and perception of the car business with them and it takes loyalty and commitment from all parties… it is rare but not uncommon where I will let a customer know that we are choosing not to continue doing business with them on this deal and any future deals. We aren’t here to be used and abused but to have relationship not just in the short term but in the long term… I would rather help “You” as a repeat loyal customer then the non loyal customer who brings baggage and abuse.

          There is a negative side in all business unfortunately but I feel too many companies don’t delve into showing the negative side or giving example of how to professionally or adequately handle it. This article gives a peak at the other side.

          The whole article and comments is a great back and forth and I feel something that should be discussed more.

          Thanks

          Ryan

  17. I’m curious how you would handle this thing I’m dealing with now that is quite related to the topic at hand. I have a single backer (who backed a $1) who keeps shouting and criticizing the project. He isn’t being incredibly rude, but he expresses himself in a way that makes it sound like he is entitled to everything. Why the game is late (a game he hasn’t even pledged for) the lack of communication or the when we do communicate the content of said communication. So far the game hasn’t even been delayed. So all in all he is spreading a lot of negativity in the comments. I have considered just refunding him and be gone with him, and I have considered to expose him as a 1 dollar backer. But so far I have done nothing hoping that he would find other things to be mad about and not cause a possible shitty post on BGG as well as on the KS page.
    What are you thoughts on people like that?

    1. Jacob: This is an older post, but I think it will answer your question in detail: https://stonemaiergames.com/kickstarter-lesson-58-how-to-manage-toxic-backers/

      I really don’t like when I feel held hostage by backers, which is what I’m reading your comment here. He’s been overly negative for no reason, and you’re worried that removing him as a backer will cause him to troll you and your project on social media.

      I’d recommend reaching out to him privately as mentioned in the toxic backers post, and if he continues, remove him as a backer and document some of his behavior in case he retaliates later.

      1. Sadly, either the number of toxic backers or their toxicity seems to increase. I backed some projects, where the thought “Yay, I supported an idea becoming reality” got overshadowed by worries about the feelings of the creator, as a lot of the comments were either demands or complaints.

        1. Zorro: I’m really sorry to hear that toxic backers are impacting your experience on some projects. As a creator, I try my best to address toxic backers in a healthy way so that other backers aren’t affected, but sometimes that isn’t enough.

      2. Thanks for the reply. I actually remember reading that post back when it came out, but had forgotten about it :) I think I will try to reach out to him and see if I can turn him in to positive force, but considering his $1 pledge I think he is in it for the trolling/armchair warrioring more than anything else. But in that case I will offer him the refund option. After all a $1 pledge isn’t much to lose :)

  18. Customer stratification is an important thing to do that not enough companies do. Good on you for doing it and being honest with your customers on why it is happening and what your criteria is for them being “fired”.

      1. Yeah, it’s a nice word that doesn’t get much use by anyone I deal with. It’s important to look at the opposite end of the spectrum from firing people and find ways to do more business with your best (and many times your most profitable) customers. Not knowing much of your actual business activities, it appears you are already doing it but I come across too many companies that do not.

  19. I think Sprint and you both made the right decision. As a business owner I quickly learned that I had to pay close attention to chronic complainers. They made up a fraction of a percent of my whole customer base, but I instinctively wanted to please them. The problem is you never can, and it ends up costing the customers who are happy. I’ve had to fire customers and I’ve never regretted one of them. A happy at peace business owner makes a successful business.

    1. Ginny: Thanks for your thoughts. You touch upon such a great point here that I can completely relate to–sometimes I just can’t please people, especially in a way that is fair to both parties. It’s rare, but it happens.

  20. I used to be an owner of a game store and you are spot on about needing to do this. I remember a guy that played D&D 3.0 who would seldom spend money. One day he asked us to do a special order for a book he wanted that we didn’t have in stock. I gave him a call when it showed up and when he came in he opens up the book and says nope I don’t want it it has the same misprint as the other copy I have. I do an internet search and all copies had that same error. I told him if he didn’t buy it I was not going to do any more special orders for him. He bitched and complained but actually did buy it. At some point months later I mentioned that happening to a friend who worked at another store. Turns out the dude had done the same thing there and they had let him get away with it. I wasn’t very sad that he stopped coming into my store.

  21. My copy of Scythe had a similar perhaps slightly worse ding on a couple of corners but hey it has travelled half way around the world to get to me. It does not impact the art, opening the box or game play. I am just very happy to play the game.

    I do understand that many people are genuine collectors as well as gamers and that having paid a significant amount of money want a perfect game. I also feel that it is unreasonable to expect that. Stonemaier Games clearly do much more than most to support us backers, to communicate problems and to resolve issues. Full refunds including shipping is a very generous offer. It is a shame when reasonable people cannot come to agreement but I totally agree that recognizing significant differences exist and taking steps to avoid protracted discussion that lead to increasingly entrenched positions is the best solution.

  22. I am a BIG fan of firing customers. I don’t recall which book I first read about the concept in, but it’s one of the most useful concepts a business owner or high-level manager should have in their arsenal. That $50 dent was telling; thank you for including the picture!

    1. I should note- I’m a huge fan of *great* people and organizations utilizing this tool. I’m also a fan of customers firing crap companies, though. God knows there are plenty of those, too. :-D

      1. Xenothon: I completely agree! I hope customers hold my feet to the fire in either a healthy, constructive way or by not buying my stuff if I’m not doing a good job. It goes both ways.

  23. Let me just say how sorry I am about that Central European backer. Although his behaviour is unacceptable, it is sometimes frustrating to see the price tag on shipping (especially as monthly average net income in our region is $400-$500). But I am quite sure that SMG Kickstarter shippings are quite the lowest possible considering the quality.

    The question is, what can we, as happy customers, do (except buying all those lovely games), to make your day?

    1. Jakub: Yeah, I understand that. In this case, it was a cost difference of $9.

      That’s a very nice question to ask! But I don’t want you to feel like you have to do anything. I’m here to serve you.

  24. You are totally right to have the ability to fire a customer. It would be the same thing as a store not allowing someone to shop at their store for a reason we may not know. The person stole from them or harassed the store. These case could all fall in the same situation and it is up to the companies to decided what is best for them. If you see one person or a few people causing problem your best way to solve the problem is get rid of the people. Either talking to them or firing them. There not much else you can.
    Every business wants to help out but there times when someone is all about themselves and think that everything has to be perfect. I have never seen something perfect in this world and I will never see it. Perfection is something unachievable in that sense. Perfection has fault just like every thing on this planet and in the universe.

    1. Thank you, Richard. I’m glad it’s only happened a few times to me, and in almost every case I try to talk to the customer to see if we can be fair to one another. It just turns out that’s not always possible. :)

  25. My philosophy is “everyone gets to be totally unreasonable — but only once”.

    My thinking is that no matter how unreasonable someone seems, there may be circumstances that I am not aware of — or that they are embarrassed to explain — that justify it.

    You also have to consider that a toxic customer can cause a lot of damage to your rep, so you want to be on record as being exceptionally obliging. So in these cases, I’m excruciatingly polite — this also will defuse situations where there is a real issue, and if the customer really is a toxic troll, it’ll piss them off because they’re trying to get you angry and you won’t be baited.

    If, after the situation is resolved, you get some indication that they are now happy, fine. If not, put them on your blacklist for future projects. If they appear happy, but make a subsequent unreasonable complaint, fix it again — but blacklist no matter what their response is.

    If they complain about being “uncustomered”, just say “I’m extremely sorry, but your standards are so high that we are unable to meet them. I think you will only be happy if you start your own company and produce products to your exacting standards. I look forward to seeing the results, so let me know when you do this.”

    :)

    In the long run, this is cheap reputation management.

  26. It’s interesting to see how much this topic hits home for so many people. As a fellow business owner, I can tell you that firing a client can be one of the most difficult yet advantageous things for an owner or a project creator to do.

    One of the most significant reasons is its effect on staff morale. Life is too short to have anyone steal your mojo and ruin an otherwise vibrant company culture.

    I’m probably in the minority here, but I would tend to disagree with the action of Sprint firing 1000 customers because they are too costly. Another approach would be to look at the processes and policies for handling situations and altering them to protect both the company and the customer. Firing clients is often a symptom of a broken or incomplete process. Creative solutions are waiting to be unleashed for those who put in the time to protect customers. That said, abusers need to go. Always.

    Mixed feelings on the sealed Scythe return. On one hand, the company needlessly had to pay shipping charges and many people don’t care to understand just how costly this is to pay for and also to manage. There’s just no reason for it with a 7-month window. Unless there is. Maybe that backer found out she had cancer? Maybe he gave up his possessions to work with youth in Africa? Maybe his friend owns a retail store and he wants to support both him and SMG? Maybe he just doesn’t want scythe but will back every other offering you make? Might be worth finding out. If not, put that energy into the amazing, hungry, supportive customers who advocate for your brand every day and consider the return postage the cost of doing business. Because your brand is worth that and more to all of us.

    1. So, I decided to reach out to the backer, assuring him that there was no obligation for him to answer my question. He replied, “I returned it as certain events came up in my life and needed some extra money. I figure also it’d be easier for you guys to sell again if I didn’t open it.”

      Which is nice, right? But why didn’t he save us the shipping cost in the first place (keep in mind that he requested the return within hours of its delivery)? I asked him why he didn’t request the refund sometime in the last 7 months, especially since my correspondence with backers was varied and frequent during that time, and he said, “The email syncd with my Kickstarter account isn’t my primary one so I don’t check it at all really. ”

      That’s kind of true, except that the email he used to request the refund was on our e-newsletter list, so he could have looked at one of the 8 e-newsletters sent between November and July, including one that was sent literally a week before he received his game.

      In the end, it doesn’t look like there was any malicious intent. But the words I used in this blog post–“expensively negligent”–are certainly true here on multiple levels.

      1. Yuck.

        The only thing I’d say to that is kudos for making the money-back-guarantee in the first pace, which certainly created more backers than it ended up costing. It’s risky, but calculated risks get you ahead. Smart way to handle it!

        I admire people who respond tactfully to trolls and abusers who have not the first clue how hard it is to make games and bring them into the world. It’s so easy to sit back and judge things from a consumer standpoint. Firing customers — doing the hard thing to protect your integrity — allows you to continue doing what you’re doing.

  27. Is that the entire story for scenario 4? If so, I think you went too far in taking them out of the Stonemaier Games family. The topic of “If you’re expensively negligent” is fair but if that is the entire description of events you’ve overreacted.

    Realistically I would never ever do what that customer did but he used your policy, didn’t give you a reason and it looks like you are pouting about it. Not cool as a business owner for your image and rep. As an ambassador who recommends & plays Viticulture like a fiend and has a proud image of SM games, this really soured it.

    I think a big reason this example stands out so much is because the first 3 scenarios are juxtaposed against the 4th scenario by the actions taken by those individuals: racism, hate speech, trolling, uncompromising demands… compared to just wanting a refund because you said he can have one if he requests it. The contrast is hard to put all this on the same level of play. Do you see what I am getting at?

    Again, is there more to this story that we don’t know to provide context on why an issued refund and an extra $17 is bending you out of shape? The shape that has spawned the spirit of a community and made me want to jump in and help promote?

    I hope you can recognize the feedback you’ve received and grow a bit thicker skin towards small issues like this. This is just a cost of doing business for having such a freely open policy that 99% of the time works to yours and the customers advantage. The 1% doesn’t require this type of attention or reprimand.

    1. Bret: Thanks for the comment. You can see a few comments above that I followed up with the backer and got the full story. I also updated the blog post with that information.

      I see what you’re getting at…but at the same time, I’m not at all comparing racist behavior to expensive negligence. Why are you comparing them? Each item of the list is independent of the other.

      And let’s keep in mind that literally all I did was remove the backer from an e-newsletter list. Is that really a big deal?

      1. I’m not comparing them, they fall into the same categories of what you are saying are fair reasons to “fire a customer”. So when someones reads this article and they read through your first 3 bullet points nodding along, agreeing and say to themselves that makes sense. Then they read the last part and scratch their head and say, as you have received a large amount of, “I probably wouldn’t fire that guy” or “Really, you are firing him for that?” so to speak, it’s because the example is not that bad, we can’t relate to a successful business person being a bit whiny about a customer returning something. You’ve created emotional responses from the post because most of us feel it was not that big of a deal to write about, do something about, and probably should not have been discussed outside your office.

        Ya, it is a big deal. You didn’t just remove him, you’ve publicly removed him and set standards for what type of customers you will tolerate. I certainly had an emotional response to this as a customer and it was not positive.

        There are two perspective’s to this post, one from the business manager and the other from the customer. You are hearing from a lot of customers and some other business people about it.

        My hope is that you have changed your mind about this specific part and realized that it was probably not a good example of the point you were trying to make. We all agree it is a fair point of contention but removing him from the list could have been done silently. Instead you made an example out his choices as bad choices essentially making a mountain out of a ant hill.

  28. It’s funny that you should post this now. I was just telling the wife about the 1-star-stalker you seem to have on BGG. Some guy who gives you nothing but 1 star reviews (without specifics as to why) and a bit of personal abuse.

    I can certainly understand not wanting to deal with certain characters.

    As for the “damaged box”, I consider myself absolutely anal about box condition. Plating and dented corners make me. Very sad, and I’ve complained on multiple occasions (almost always as a result of someone using Shipnaked and their plastic bag mailers), but not even I would consider that Scythe box to be an issue.

  29. I will just add a nice thought from Timothy Ferriss book: 20% customers generates 80% problems and consume 80% of your time and energy.

    I can understand why some people don’t agree with Jamey; however, the relation between publisher and customer works both sides. Jamey is working 80 hour weeks already; his business is growing, and he needs more time to focus on more important things than dealing with that small group of always unhappy and silly people. He has to optimise his time management. Customers have to understand that they need to be serious grownups to be treated seriously. Everyone is expecting high quality and being ok from the author/publisher, but it looks like some people don’t expect that from a customer. It works both sides.

    Of course, we can be emotional about that small group of people but does that small group of people is trying to understand the publisher? Customers have to be humans as well and then there will be no problems!

    1. Mateusz: That’s a great comparison to Ferriss’ ratio!

      I agree that a big part of this is about time management. I’m able to better serve 99.99% of our customers this way.

  30. There is a very good reason for KS not to allow project creators to block backers. Fraud.

    Since only backers can comment on projects, if a project creator had the power to block backers, they would have a powerful tool to minimize criticism right out of the gate, especially if the project creator is a repeat offender (and there have been a few) and known to people who will call them out. While companies like Reaper and Stonemaier wouldn’t abuse it, you know that there are people who would.

    1. Chris: Well said. I agree with that. I think it’s good to be able to report backers to Kickstarter (and maybe they should widen their rules on what you can report), but it’s good for backers to be able to hold creators accountable in the public eye.

  31. This reads a heck of a lot better now. I’m glad you are sticking to what makes you feel like you can provide the best service to the customers you feel matter. Hope we can still be friends and one day I’d like to road trip to an event to meet you.

  32. Hi Jamey,
    Maybe a quick tweak to your process that might help with the refunds issue: change your policy from “No questions asked” to “One question asked: We’ll refund you within the first month for any and every reason, but we’d definitely love to know _why_ you’ve asked for a refund (it helps us with future planning and decision making)!”

    Firing customers who are genuinely a huge waste makes a lot of sense, but by cutting out the ability to ask for context, you’re setting yourself up for unnecessary pain (and they can always not tell you if they really want to).

    Cheers!
    -Ian

    1. Thanks Ian! I like that approach. It’s a soft approach that helps us learn. Of the dozen or so people who asked for a Scythe refund before shipping started, many of them stated the reason (they needed the money) without me asking.

  33. A previous company at which I worked did subcontract electronics manufacturing. The margins on that tend to be fairly tight, anyway, but one of our customers was always pushing the price tighter and tigher and were always contacting us with “issues”. The account manager was chatting with me and he reckoned that once we took into account the hidden costs of the company’s staff time, we actaully made a loss with them. They decided they’d go off to the far east to cut manufacturing costs even more, but we warned them they wouldn’t get the quality – they went, anyway. Surprise, surprise, they were back within about 8 months and were asking for tenders for the work we used to do – we cranked about 20% on to our price to cover the aggro we knew it involved. We didn’t get the work, this time, but no loss – let some poor other sod learn what we learned the hard way.

    No matter how good a human face you want to present, and how great customer service you want to deliver, a company is still there to make money, and people still have to make money to live, so if you do have to cut certain customers, to need to do it. It’s jsut doing it in the right way – social media can be a powerful tool for the disgruntled, nowadays.

    1. Phil: Thank you for sharing that story. I agree that there are some customers–very, very few of them, but a few–that end up costing you more than you make. We can’t stay in business if we’re losing money on customers. With all the other things I’m passionate about, like community, relationships, etc–those things aren’t possible unless we’re profitable.

  34. I think it’s completely fair to fire customers. Like them you have tjekket right to choose Who you want to do business with.

    But I also consider it a bit passive agressive to just fire them, without letting them know, that they have been offensive, unreasonable, etc. These people may not know, that they have stepped over the line, and unless you telt them, they won’t clean up their act.

    I consider the bord game community to be exceptionally Nice and inviting, but every now and then I see people stepping over the line, lille you explained, and when people take the time to telt them, why their behaviour isn’t okay, they usually understand.

  35. Wow, I hope I can articulate how this post makes me feel accurately. I wanted to, but didn’t back the Scythe KS, due to financial constraints. I missed the first preorder when it was up on trycelery. I was hoping to catch a preorder from CoolStuffInc or Miniature Market, but got laid off a couple months ago, and what remaining money I had was used for survival mode. I got a new job and got my first paycheck last Friday, and when I got the Stonemaier Newsletter this morning, mentioning Scythe sales I thought, “Yes, time to celebrate the end of unemployment.” I decided to read your blog post. In the time I have been following Scythe, I have enjoyed seeing a crowd funder that takes care of their community, and looked forward to supporting the company. But now I read this and I feel very conflicted about the unopened Scythe package scenario.

    I had a similar experience a few months ago, before my layoff. I bid in an auction on BGG that was close enough I could do a local pick-up. Three days before the auction ended, my daughter broke her leg. I contacted the gentleman running the auction, explained my situation, and asked if I could take a little more time to pay. I told him I would not retract my bid, as that felt scummy to do to him, but if nobody outbid me, I would still pay, but it would be much more convenient for me to do it later. Roughly a month after, the bills were under control and I was able to sell off another board game to raise the funds to pay for my auction, contacted the guy, and got it taken care of. I feel like I know what this customer is feeling.

    For want of $35, you publicly ostracized a supporter of your business, complained about honoring your own policy, and clicked a button to take him off your newsletter.

    I subscribe to several e-Newsletters. I read less than a third of them, and that is mostly a quick scan for any information that piques my interest. But every time I get that newsletter, about gaming, technology, finance or whatever, I remember why I don’t click “unsubscribe” from that person or company. The champion ideals I agree with, or they promote things I am interested in. If I wouldn’t recommend their product, they get re-routed to the spam folder or I remove myself from the list. So you cut off a guy who could be an ambassador for your company, the best advertising in an industry where people will complain loudly about CMON’s lack of customer communication, or how Asmodee will squeeze them for every last nickel they can get, or will buy their favorite publishers in the next five years, or Fantasy Flight pricing points. But in all that I hear “Stegmaier takes care of his customers.” “Stegmaier doesn’t do KS exclusives so he doesn’t divide his community.” “Stegmaier is transparent with his backers.” “Stegmaier games are a great value for the cost.”

    And here, Jamey Stegmaier is firing a customer for the cost of a fancy dinner downtown. Jamey Stegmaier is putting a customer up for public shaming over the cost of a one-year subscription to a comic book.

    At this point I don’t trust that if I ordered your product, and something were to go wrong, that my complaint would be treated as valid and within the confines of what you consider acceptable

    1. While I understand Jamey’s frustration with this customer, s/he was just using the option given, for reasons that weren’t understood at the time. However in no way have they been shamed in public or ostrasized – there’s no names here, so it’s purely a “here’s something that happened with someone you will never know”.

  36. I’ve read and reread this blog and the responses many times now. I feel for Jamey in his frustration with customers he cannot please and will cost him money. I feel the embarrassment of the folks who are now up for discussion on a public blog. Having Scythe is almost feeling uncomfortable at this point. Not what I expected.

    1. Mary: I was very hesitant to tell those stories in the blogs. Even though I didn’t name names, it seemed almost like an act of vindication to share private stories like that.

      But I realized that it wasn’t an act of vindication at all. I write this blog to help other creators by sharing what I do–my insights, my mistakes, my successes, and my shortcomings. My goal wasn’t to make anyone feel bad. It was to add value to other creators. To do that, I needed to give specific examples, not generalizations.

      I understand that it caused some discomfort to you and others, and I’m sorry for that. The last thing I want is for you to look at your copy of Scythe–a game you helped to create–and feel uncomfortable. If there’s anything I can do to address that discomfort, please let me know.

  37. We are going to donate the game with some other items we have been pulling together for charity. We wish you nothing but the best as you move forward to change your business model, and provide yourself with a more manageable life.

  38. Jamey, you made a tough decision and I’m glad you did. Refusing to use a product because it’s not right for you is understandable. Refusing to use a product because it’s creator differs in his opinion on an issue is lame.

    Most folks will never know how hard it is to bring a product like this into the marketplace in our self-entitled, attention economy. Your company, your blog, your products and your policies will never be perfect. Nor will anyone else’s. That’s kind of the point here, isn’t it?

    Scythe is an excellent game, and I would never get rid of my copy simply because it’s creator was brave enough to share the decisions he makes behind the scenes with others, whether I agree or not. I’ll keep the game based on it’s merit on my table.

    Hats off to you for making the incredible time and money sacrifice to publicize what you’re learning on your journey. Most learning is done by making mistakes. Your blog is gold. This post is gold. All of this is making the entire industry stronger and smarter. It’s saving new project creators countless hours and dollars. We’re all learning together.

    Everything you’re doing is worth it. And some of us, I guarantee you, are grateful.

  39. I don’t really understand how some people can say you publicly ostracizie or embarass someone, when you keep the examples strictly anonymous and there’s no way for anyone to find out who those customers were.

  40. It seems ridiculously unreasonable for you to pout and expect a customer, who is going through some sort of crisis that requires financial relief, to have a game that he funded nine months ago be at the forefront of his thought process. Especially if he isn’t following Kickstarter updates, or is in a rough patch.

    It is a lot more likely he saw the package on the doorstep and thought “Hey, I could turn this into quick cash. Jamey’s an awesome guy. I better not open it so there won’t be any trouble with the return.”

    I sure hope I never need customer service from someone with such high standards for what constitutes a legitimate need for a refund.

  41. Many years ago, I was a US Navy recruiter. I had one applicant that was such a pain in the derriere, I told him I didn’t want him in the Navy and refused to sign him up. One of my fellow recruiters did though, but he was not longer my headache.

  42. Nice interesting read, as always.

    I am boath happy and sad for you Jamie, happy that you have become that big that this is a issu. And sad that you actualy have to deal with stuff like this. I do hope that stuff like that do not take up to much of your time.

    Regarding the “getting rid of customers”. I totaly agree with how you handel things. My only fear would be that when big companies have started that the threshold will move more and more. And in certan areas when you might only have one provider to choose from that it can be miss used. But I would say it is hopfully far away from something like that, probaly just me being doomy and gloomy. =)

  43. Well this was a very interesting article and the comment section alone was pretty fascinating to see people’s reactions to what you shared.

    Thanks for the transparency. That’s not something you get with a lot of companies and I am honestly impressed with your patience with people! (I would have a hard time being that patient!)

    Although I agree with other comments that the last example is probably the one I may have given a second chance to as a customer, especially because I’ve been through some sudden life changes like a major illness and in my experience you really do stop paying attention to checking your email and making sure you’ve cancelled a Kickstarter etc because all your time and attention is just on surviving day to day. That’s the one thing that popped into my head with that example.

    On the other hand, I felt sad for you that you got fired by a customer who now doesn’t want your games just because of your sharing this post.
    I try not to make decisions about what games I play based on the beliefs of the owner of the company… Otherwise I bet it would really limit the games I could buy and play and I love games too much to limit myself like that haha :)

    Oh I meant to say… I love that you link to the most popular posts of the month in the monthly update email. My email was taking up too much of my time so I unfortunately had to unsubscribe from your twice weekly posts but this way I can catch up on some of them! Thanks!

  44. I wouldn’t worry too much about companies firing customers being misused. Most are, after-all, in business to make money, and when it affects the bottom line they would quickly reconsider their policy. Also, there’s always somebody out there that will come up with an idea or alternative if a company gets too hard to deal with. Most companies have the right to choose who they do business with already and it hasn’t been abused yet. I think it’s unlikely.

  45. So, in a heated post on BGG that got locked, Jamey asked for feedback on a customer service issue, so if he’s reading this too, here’s my reply/opinion.

    If I buy a game as an investment to resell, I would look at the outside box, and if the outside looks good, I’d be happy. If it had damage, I’d probably send it back for a replacement. If the damage was very minor, I might not even worry about it, but if it looks like the inside components might have been damaged, I’d want a new game.

    Likewise, if I intentionally bought a game with a damaged box, I would not expect the contents to be pristine and perfect.

    If I open a game, I’m not worried about resale because as soon as I take the shrink wrap off, it looses value. I may sell it someday but I’m not looking to make a profit. I opened it because I want to play it. Therefore, I’m more worried about playability. I do “upgrade” games with nicer components and am mildly OCD about my games, but wear-and-tear or minor blemishes are acceptable. If I have to glue a piece together or use a felt pen to color in a scratch, I will, and I’ll still enjoy the game (which is why I bought it). If a damaged or missing part affects gameplay though (missing unique pieces, obviously marked cards, or something that is a major eyesore) I’d want a replacement.

    The problem is that everyone’s definition of minor is different. If a customer demands a replacement, and you think it doesn’t warrant a replacement, maybe offer to sell the part at cost + shipping. That way, they get their replacement and you don’t lose money. I know it’s not that easy as you’ll eventually run out of stock, but that’s the only compromise I can think of.

    This is for a new game though. If I buy a game used or damaged at a discount, all bets are off. That’s the risk I take.

  46. I have been asking Kickstarter to let me refund customers mid-campaign to get them off of the comment section. For every 250-500 backers it seems I get one ridiculous commenter – often famous for being a troll on campaigns. It gets so annoying to have your productive dialog with your customers constantly interrupted with screams for attention…

    1. And let me just add that this is a great topic to talk about and I hope it gets more bandwidth… And generally “firing a customer” means “making sure they never bother you again” and that is very hard to do with Kickstarter. The best we can do is make a list of folks who were super annoying/required too much time and the second the campaign ends, refund their money…

  47. I’m afraid I didn’t read all the comments here, but I still wanted to add my voice to the crowd on this one. I think that Kickstarter can be an odd place for customers to find their voice. I’ll give one example from my own campaign. I had a backer who had taken the rulebook posted on the page for people to check over and tell me they had translated it into their native language, and they would now like me to send them all the original artwork from the game along with PDFs etc so they could also translate the rest of the game so they could play it more comfortably with their friends. Now, I seriously considered this, I was giving it real thought for about a day, thinking about and even costing the possibilities, in the middle of a KS campaign. Then about 24 hours after the original request I got another message abusing me for my slow reply to his mail. Since this whole idea would require me working with this person quite closely their attitude in the new mail made up my mind pretty quickly so I explained that I was unwilling to potential breach my copyright protections by sending out artwork that I’d spent a lot of money on in its raw form for them to make alterations to. Which triggered messages ranging from the annoying to the abusive. This was all from a £1 backer.
    My point here, and sorry for going on, is that one of their primary sources of rage and frustration was that I was running a KS campaign like a business, that I was doing things to protect my copyright and in a way that made financial sense in order to make some sort of profit. While this is an extreme example, there is a split on KS between the commercial and the personal, and there are things I would put up with in a handmade gift from a friend that I wouldn’t in a professionally made item and equally, liberties I would take with a gift a friend was making me that I wouldn’t even think of with a big company. I think that for some customers that line gets blurred, they treat a product from a KS campaign they way they would a gift from a friend, and they make requests or even demands that they’d never consider making from a proper company. Sometimes you can meet those demands, sometimes you can make someone see that they’re out of step with your position, but sometimes you find someone who gets angry when you run your business like a business and at that point you have to step back from that person, because you’ll only make each other miserable.

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