Compassion vs. Profit: When to Turn Away Business

One of the biggest challenges I have faced in business is deciding when it is actually good to turn away business.  Everyone loves to read business books and listen to experts talk about the 80/20 (sometimes 90/10) rule.  This applies for things like 20% of your customers provide 80% of your revenue but then also gets flipped around to show that 20% of your customers cause 80% of your problems also.

When I started in the ISP business back in 1998 there was some truth to some kind of percentage rule pertaining to problem customers.  Back then I would say that 5% of our customers caused 95% of our problems.  We had almost 14,000 customers at our largest point and we would receive customer service calls from < 10% of them each month and out of that group half of them were quick and easy fixes for courteous customers.  The other half were royal PITA types of people that expected us as an ISP to help them with their other computer problems, fix their printers, make their coffee and basically anything they could drag out of us.

But those customers really didn’t affect the other customers at all except for maybe holding up a CS rep for longer than necessary causing longer wait times in the queue.  When the problems from certain customers start affecting other customers directly is when it is time to step in and make that decision to “break the wrist and walk away”.

With my current company, eBash, we have seen quite a few characters over the past 6 years walk through our door.   As many of you in this industry can probably confirm this business is a sort of melting pot of people from different backgrounds and lifestyles.  Any given day you might see a lineman from the ISU football team, a 60 year old phone book salesman, the son of the county sheriff and a homeless person sitting all together as a team playing Halo, Call of Duty or World of Warcraft.

Although I was being extreme using those examples those are actual people who game or have gamed at our store in the past.  Our current situation has a real unique group of people in our store on a regular basis that I am torn between the decision of compassion for individuals and comfort for other customers.

Around 6 months ago we started seeing a group of homeless folks start showing up at the center.  I use the word homeless based on their own claims but I have no evidence one way or another to confirm.  However the situation as I am going to describe is pretty bizarre as I think about typing it all out.

This group hangs out about 1/2 mile from our store at the intersection of I-70 and US 41.  They use this intersection as their daily job by standing all around the on and off ramps for the interstate with cardboard signs that generally read something like this:

HOMEless & OuT
of WoRK
PLeASE HElP

You can imagine my surprise the first time I saw one of these people standing there and recognized them as one of the group that comes to the center to play.

We have quite a few customers that have bathing problems and we have a strict policy on “Show up clean or go home and shower” so these guys didn’t stand out just because they smelled a little funky more than the 14 year old kid that sweats all of the time.  However after the employees and I were aware that these guys were doing this we started paying more attention to things like their clothing and how they paid.  This group wore the exact same clothes every single day.  Either they really did have nothing else to wear or they are really good at their con game.

Our prices are pretty cheap to become a member and play all day, especially during the week when it is only $7.50 for a day pass.  They would sometimes pay with a crisp $20 bill and sometimes with a ziploc bag of pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters.  I remember one time my employees put a ziploc bag under the drawer and did not roll the coins which irritates me when I cash the drawer out to go to the bank.  I counted the bag and it came out to an odd number of $5.41 and we were $0.09 short that day.  I ripped the employee up and told them to count more carefully.  They were going to get the customer to pay the $0.09 missing but then we saw that person standing by the Interstate begging for money.  We let the $0.09 slide.

The situation rose to another level one day when a customer came to the store dropping off their middle school age kids and recognized one of the guys.  Right in the lobby of the store the customer shared their disappointment (loudly) with them begging for money and then using the money to come to eBash to play video games.

The smart business decision that most people would have made would be to not allow them back when we first were aware of how they were getting their money.  There could be much discussion about the moral and ethical decision of the people who GIVE beggars money but there is another side of the coin for businesses who knowingly TAKE money from someone who has “begged” for it.

Of course they could be using their “hard earned” money and buying drugs, alcohol and who knows what else so having them spend the money at eBash to play games and eat snacks doesn’t seem too bad right?  These people don’t just hang out at the store but they actually play games.  They come to lock-ins and tournaments and seem to genuinely enjoy gaming.  We do not allow any loitering at the store so the ones that tried to just hang out with the gamers were asked to leave.

While I am trying to decide between right-and-wrong, doing the right thing for these individuals, my business and our customers the sheriff shows up at our store one day.  They have a mug shot of a guy from this group and leave a phone number to call them when he comes back to the store. (Side Note: My wife pointed out that these guys are at the busiest street corner in the city every single day begging for money so it wasn’t like they were hard to find) A day later we see that he was arrested and in jail.  Ugh, now I might have a PR problem on my hands.

Luckily for us we run a very tight store and have a zero tolerance policy for drugs, fighting and even control foul language in the family areas of our store.   With cameras in every nook-and-cranny and viewable through our website everyone knows that our store is a safe place to play.

There are just a couple of them left that hang out at the store now and I am torn what to do.  Because one of them was arrested should the entire group not be allowed to come back to the store?  One of them came in this past weekend and I don’t think I have smelled anything quite so bad in my entire life.  There is only so many times you can tell a “homeless” person to take a shower and wash their clothes.

I would love to hear some suggestions if anyone has ideas?  What should we do?

7 thoughts on “Compassion vs. Profit: When to Turn Away Business

  1. if you have to set next to one of these people for more then five minutes and are trying to focus on a game that you have paid money to play…well you know my answer i shouldn’t have to say anymore!

  2. Spidey I totally understand. Sunday night it was so bad that someone in the Green room made it uncomfortable for the people in the Orange and Yellow Rooms nearby. During the week it is less of a problem because you can move away from them but on the weekend when we are full it makes it bad for everyone in a 15 foot radius.

    My only regret would be kicking them out and then they would have no where else to go, especially when it is cold outside. I know we are not a charity, but they are paying the same as everyone else.

  3. I tend to be very egalitarian, so as long as they are paying and playing by the rules, let them stay. If they don’t meet your minimum hygiene requirement, deal with them as you would anyone else. I would consider that fair. I’ve know very well groomed and showered people that wreak of stale coffee because they drink so much of it. I don’t want to breathe near them, either.

    The rich and powerful do more harm to their fellow man than the poor and desperate.

    Personally I think a lot of people dwell too much on someone’s perceived potential to do harm when there is nothing but stereotype and assumption to back it up.

  4. I can understand from a point of view. It’s one thing to scam people out of their money to play video games. But when they could be using the money for something more beneficial (clothes, shower, house, etc etc) then there is a problem. They can’t expect to play at eBash for the rest of their life. Maybe kicking them out could move them in the right direction. From a real perspective, it probably wouldn’t do them any better. No one likes to play next to smelly shady gamers. But no one likes to kick people to the curb either.

  5. They are in obvious violation of Rule 21 of the eBash rules. Very similar to a no shirt no shoes no service policy, I think that if rule 21 is broken, kick them out. This is probably my number one pet peeve about eBash.
    As far as them conning or begging money and then turn around and spend it at ebash? I frown on that. You should be spending that towards improving your life and actually getting a pay check instead of playing video games.
    When the cops did show up asking about him, and we later found out the reason why, I belive that yes you should turn all of them away. One person can ruin everyones fun. I dont think eBash should have any interaction or relationship with the people that associated on a regular basis with said person outside of ebash, since eBash is geared more towards a family atmosphere.

    IMO
    A) Enforce the rule about personal hygiene.
    B) Spend only disposable income (look it up if you don’t know what that is…and seriously?) on a luxury like video games. If you are having a hard time getting by spend it on getting by!
    C) Be preventative about potential big problems. Take PistolPetes theory from the eBash forums. If a homeless guy who is possibly going to be arrested is going to drive away potential customers who are upstanding citizens and actually contribute to more then just your business, then get rid of the homeless guy because you have the potential to bring in more long term customers if they arnt afraid that the little ones one have to sit next to the shady/smelly/creepy guy who you know is doing nothing better then begging/conning people for money and doing nothing with it but play.

    Yes this is harsh but life sucks, get used to it.

  6. @Robert, it’s not so much because they’re poor, it’s the fact that they are outside claiming to be homeless and then spend all their begged for money to come in and play video games rather than bettering their situation. It’s the equivalent of kicking someone out of a bar. There are much better places in Terre Haute for a homeless person to spend their time than eBash. I don’t see any problem with a little bit of hospitality, but they shouldn’t be hanging out at ebash spending all their money every day if they really are homeless.

  7. Maybe they shouldn’t spend their money there, but whose business is that? They are homeless, and it is cold and rainy. 12 hours at eBash is cheaper than rent so maybe they are spending their money wiser than you think. Everyone else already kicks them out. If you are kicked completely out of society you never get the chance to change and get back in.

    Does everyone need to bring in financial statements so they can police where their income is from? If we are taking the moral road, make sure the school-age kids have their homework done first. What if they are playing video games and flunking classes? How much business are people allowed to stick their noses in?

    By all means, be fair. If they’re not allowed to stink, make them leave.

    Criminal matters are different and carry different obligations.

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