How Contempt Breeds Business Cancer (& 5 Ways to Kill It)

How Contempt Breeds Business Cancer (& 5 Ways to Kill It)

Every business owner gets a Spidey Sense. You learn to see trouble before it starts.

You wouldn’t need much of a Spidey sense to feel the danger from Jon’s presales email:

Jon: “Does your product work with Powerdirector? I’m on a rush deadline—I need it to work with PowerDirector.” (Keys: word ‘need’, rush, budget software).

My answer: “I’ve never had any Powerdirector requests — sorry. You could try to use our free version to see if it fits.”

Jon’s response: “Real nice customer service.”

… some time passed …

Jon: “I bought it anyway. You promised 58 clips but I only have 52. And it doesn’t work with PowerDirector.”

Me: “There were six free assets, so it made 58 assets.”

Jon: “Oh, so you counted the free ones. Not honest.”

I said something like, “Hey, man, this isn’t a fit, I’m sorry it didn’t work out, if you like I’ll refund you when I’m back to a computer.” If the story ended here, I would have been fine. But we went on.

Jon: “So you can’t keep your promises? I WANTED THE FILES AND I WANTED WHAT I PAID FOR, I wanted to pay you, you could buy a christmas gift for your kids.”

Jon continued: “You shouldn’t even have a website and sell products like this, and here are other issues [a list of errors, semi-valid at most]. YOU SHOULD THANK ME.” Jon went on to discuss his value.

I said, “Hey, I can’t help out, sorry.”

Jon escalates. More of the same. I’m a fraud. I get it, Jon.

We had never had a complaint like this, so I said to Jon:

Hi Jon,

A refund is applied to your account, I wish you nothing but the best.

As typos are a very serious problem, we will of course take your advice and take our website down.

After that, I plan to cancel my product, fire my staff, and if all goes as hoped, I will immolate myself.

While my kids may miss their dad at Christmas time, typos are a serious matter, and it’s a small penalty to pay.

Chris Johnson

ZING! BAM! Showed that guy.

I forwarded this to a dozen friends. I was proud. I refunded him, and mocked his ridiculousness.

After all, I had thousands of customers and only one “Jon.” Jon was the asshole.

You want to make sure that you’re in charge – that’s the point of being in business, isn’t it? If we wanted to work with morons, we would have stayed in our cubicles.

When The Student Is Ready

Around that time, I was hosting Shervin Tallieh from Drumbi. I was grousing about a different insane customer. Without hesitating Shervin said:

“He’s right, you know.” He had the unshakable, matter of fact conviction behind what he was saying. He could have said “Wheat has gluten, you know.” Shervin didn’t listen to my details, yet my customer was right.

“But this guy, he was insane.”

“No, he was right.” Shervin shrugged. “They all are.” He held eye contact, and I suddenly just knew these weren’t the droids I was looking for.

He was right. They’re all right.

Contempt is So “In” Right Now.

Shervin was right to ignore the “why.” The problem wasn’t my dispute with Jon. It was the contempt I felt. For a human. For a customer. For someone trying to solve a problem. The problem was that I was proud of my contempt. I put this guy in his place. I was self righteous and sanctimonious, and overbearing and superior.

Currently, it’s fashionable to mimic the people that display contempt for their customers. You see it everywhere:

  • The marketer that says: I unsubscribed that asshole from my list (because he dared to engage in an email)
  • The guy that crows I am the king of the preemptive refund.
  • and all its cousins.
  • This kind of crap.

Loser behavior. I was part of it. It’s the easiest way to get high fives. For sure: people do this, but they succeed despite this attitude, never because of it.

Brad Feld updated my vocabulary for this in his recent blog post. He calls it Thinly Disguised Contempt. He’s right. It’s an easy road to the business failure spiral.

Here’s the cancerous cycle that takes place:

  1. First, you get contemptuous of some customers.
  2. Then, you become cynical and jaded.
  3. Then, because your customers aren’t going to get it you stop doing the ‘back of the cabinet’ stuff that humanizes products. Your work has suffered because you have allowed contempt to sink in.
  4. You get defensive, face burnout and then depression.

When you can’t love your customers, you can’t serve them at the highest level. You don’t run through walls for someone that’s a paycheck.

It’s game over when you start settling.

How To Prevent Contempt From Cancering Your Business

1. Don’t Vindicate Yourself. A customer had an experience they didn’t like. You don’t need to prove if you are right or wrong. That’s not relevant. What’s important is making a judgement: is this worth fixing.

2. Look At The Opportunity. Some people are surly, disrespectful, ungrateful and wrong. Some of them have big jobs. Some people like that have power. Learning to work with these people — without getting drawn in — is a skill that you should have.

3. Always Err on the side of empathy. What are the consequences of being nicer to someone than they deserved? What are the consequences of being meaner? Will too nice of a response to a human ever ruin a career?

4. Cultivate Improvement Bias. When something goes wrong at Simplifilm, there are two components: what do we do with our transaction, and what do we do with our system. For the transaction, we try and fix it with empathy. We believe that we caused it. Because if we caused it we can improve our system.

5. Rethink your filter. Most people say “block out everyone, make customers prove themselves to you.” Being available can be hard. Many filters are vanity in disguise. If you knew the people that answered their personal emails…

Contempt — in all of its forms — is cancer. You can still have boundaries, you can still be detached from the problems without being contemptuous of human beings.

And you can learn more, faster.

None of us are so precious that we can’t get better.

Contempt breeds business cancer. Here are 5 ways to prevent it.
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Chris Johnson is the founder of Simplifilm, a motion graphics and trailer studio for authors, start ups, and Fortune 500 companies. He’s also one of the best sales guys I (Chase) know. Photo above via Orderstluckwamp

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  • Kelly Keenan

    Good Stuff.

  • Dan Gamito

    “contempt is so in right now” so true. It certainly is an easy trap to fall into, especially when angry people trigger our deepest insecurities.

    • Chris Johnson

      It’s just in because we can make a tribe that’s better than others, and that always feels good.

  • Dee

    “None of us are so precious that we can’t get better.”

    I think that’s a neat perspective – it can be extremely difficult to help someone you think is hurting you or out to get you, but empathy/kindness/not flying off the handle all benefit YOU as much as the other person.

  • Chris Johnson

    That’s the rub, isn’t it? Staying cool? If Tony Sopranno had just let his mother be, he woudln’t have been arrested.. ;-).

    • Chase Reeves


  • Kimberly Crossland

    “What are the consequences of being nicer to someone than they deserved?” <– THIS.

    Awesome post! Something I think we forget is that we've all been that awful customer on the other end of the line who didn't deserve to have someone be nice to us in return. When they are, we feel relieved, grateful, and happy that they took mercy on us by getting to the root of our problem. It's the whole golden rule thing… be nice to people because you'll appreciate when others are nice to you (especially when you don't deserve it).

    • Chris Johnson

      I’ve been that awful, psycho and insane customer a few zillion times.

    • Chase Reeves

      That’s one of my favorite lines as well.

  • Omar Zenhom

    Can’t get enough Chris Johnson! This post is more than just a wake-up call but a reminder to reflect upon why you got into business in the first place. I’m just going to say it because you’re all thinking it anyway- When I grow up I want to be a Chris Johnson. (I’m pretty sure he’s younger than me)

    • Chris Johnson

      38, holmes. 38 damn years old. The age that they retire athletes. The age that men get bellies and corvettes. Mozart was long dead, so was Charlie Parker and Jesus Christ

      • Omar Zenhom

        Well, I’m not long off at 34. No Corvette. No accomplishments like those mentioned. Still at it though.

      • Chase Reeves


  • Chris Conrey

    “The Customer is always Right” – This may be the single most misunderstood line in all of business, in this case Shervin nailed it, the “right”ness is in their mind, and nothing we as businesspeople can do will ever change that.

    When one of us lets the customer have it and let it fester, we all lose. Well said.

  • Lani Rosales

    Chris, I remember seeing this original thread and thinking “yeah, right on, go get ‘em!” and along with yours, my mind is changed. Thank you for thoughtfully considering your position, it has adjusted my thinking as well (and I can’t say that THAT happens very often). :)

    Thank you. Really. I’m moved.

  • Chris Johnson

    Nice to meet you, corey.

  • Beatrix Willius

    This is something I sometimes struggle with. I get customers who aren’t computer savvy at all. Telling them “do a, do b, do c” doesn’t work. Then I vent to myself a bit and politely offer them a Skype session.

    For writing sarcastic or cynical emails there is always the overnight method: write the mail, sleep over it, make it more polite.

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