Sunday, October 22, 2023

When a service provider disappoints, what do we owe them?

What, if anything, do we owe service providers when we decide to no longer use their services? The question seems a simple one. Many of us have left cable service or cell phone providers because of consistently poor service or outrageously high prices.

Beyond ceasing to pay our former provider after breaking up, we rarely if ever feel the need to explain why we are leaving. Occasionally, the old provider might send an impersonal email or letter letting us know it really, truly missed us and wanted to woo us back. But where were these “baby, I love you” letters when we were waiting on hold for 37 minutes before being disconnected? We’ve moved on. Nevertheless, old providers will persist in trying to woo us back.

But what about when the service provider is not some large impersonal corporation where the only employee we might ever have seen was the person sitting in a company van in our neighborhood? If we know the person whose services we are severing, do we owe them an explanation?

A reader we’re calling Bob had been using an accountant we’re calling Zack to file his annual income tax forms. Bob had met Zack when Zack was a CPA with a large accounting firm that had done work for the company where Bob worked. They had made idle chit chat and struck up a cordial relationship before Zack struck out to launch his own accounting firm.

The first two years went well. Bob would call to set up a meeting with Zack after he’d filled out the tax organizer Zack had sent him. They’d discuss his taxes, and Bob’s tax forms would arrive for his signature shortly after. In year three of their relationship, after Bob showed up for his annual appointment, he found himself meeting with Ted, a recently hired junior accountant at Zack’s firm.

Bob was disappointed that Zack had never called him to tell him he would be shuttling him to a junior member now that the firm was growing. That disappointment grew and Bob decided to find a new accountant.

Months later, Bob ran into Zack at a holiday party at the company where they had met. Once again, they fell into idle chit chat that led to Zack mentioning to Bob how disappointed he was that he had never called or emailed him to let him know he was changing accountants.

Not knowing how to respond, Bob said nothing, but wonders if he owed Zack, his accountant, an explanation.

He doesn’t. He had every right to be disappointed that Zack never mentioned he’d be moving him to a junior associate, which would have been the right thing to do. If Zack had told Bob his reason it might have helped Bob to see the wisdom of providing future clients with such information, but Bob had no obligation to help Zack run his business better.

When services no longer meet our needs, regardless of the reason, we have no obligation to stick with those services if we have other options. Service providers would do well to remind customers how much they love their business while they are still in the fold and better yet to show them the respect that makes this point for them.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Honesty is the best policy."