Our biggest customer is a bully. Help!

The boss of one of our suppliers is rude and arrogant, but I can't do without him.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 10 Jun 2014

Q. Our biggest customer is a bully. It never pays us on time - every piece of work we do for it has to be followed by a flurry of emails and phone calls demanding payment - and the boss of the company is rude and arrogant. If I had my way, I'd tell them to shove it, but the work we do for them represents 35% of our sales. Help!

Jeremy says: Understandable anger and frustration can cloud considered judgement. You need to try to answer three difficult questions.

First: what are this customer's alternatives? Are there other suppliers it could easily switch to if you decided to get tough? Or does it need you more than it'd like to admit?

Second: if it represents 35% of your sales, what does it represent in terms of profit? Hanging on to unprofitable volume may not make a lot of long-term sense.

Finally: if freed from this arrogant and time-consuming customer, would you be in a better position to take on work from other sources? If so, how much and how quickly? And what effect would it have on staff morale?

Answer all these as best you can and you'll know a little more clearly whether you've got to grin and bear it or whether to lay down ultimatums you're prepared to stand by.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. Email him your problems on editorial@managementtoday.com. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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