The customer is king. The customer is always right.
It’s intriguing really how such a simple adage could introduce perhaps one of the greatest dilemma all businesses have to face in this 21st century:
To fully obey your customers or not to do.
Looking back at history, it wasn’t evident who initially coined the phrase but two gentlemen are most often credited for its use: in the US it was Marshall Field and in the UK it was Harry Gordon Selfridge. These two’s initial belief was that treating customers as if they were right even when they weren’t would make them feel more content and prized, allowing the two to retain these customers and in turn foster respective businesses in the long run.
And in some respect I suppose they were right – otherwise the phrase wouldn’t have prevailed anyway. Keeping all your customers satisfied by heeding their pressing demands and requests indeed sounds like a reasonable way to sustain a business, especially during the rapid economic boom of the 20th century. However, as time went by, recent developments have begun to complicate things a little bit, generating some concerns in regards to this approach. Particularly noting the change of dynamics within the industry, many critics believed that such approach is starting to get outdated, and could eventually harm the company who persist to uphold it.
The case against
A quick Google search of the exact title for this article is all that it takes to find the many responses against the case, trying to prove that customer is in fact, not always right. Amongst many out there, let us look at the three of the most common arguments in more details:
“Not all customers are good for your business.”
The reasoning here is that pleasing every customers nowadays doesn’t necessarily equate to having a better business, bearing in mind that the cost of doing so to the bad apple could actually outweigh the long term benefit – financially or even mentally. For instance, these undesired customers range widely from ones that are beyond unreasonable to ones that are just rude [link to a YouTube video].
Many more examples exist, but generally these customers are the ones impossible to please. In such case, treating them as if they were right thus is seen as unrewarding, since the time, money or energy a business put on them could be used instead to focus on others who are more cooperative and agreeable.
- “The approach pits your employee against the customers.”
Because believing that customer is always right might very well imply that your employees are always on the losing side – even if the customers are clearly trampling over them and show no respect whatsoever. The implication for this could be grave and has been iterated by many experts including Alex Kjerulf, author of the book Happy Hour is 9 to 5, who suggests that favouring customers would lead to employees indignation, feeling unvalued in their work.
In the long run, CEO of Rosenbluth International, Hal Rosenbluth, believes this too would affect a business’ customer service performance, as then the employees would slowly stop to care about its quality. Exceptional service would become near impossible to achieve, with courtesy only shown in the surface and lacking sincerity.
- “Your customers don’t know what they need.”
An adaptation of the famous Steve Jobs quote is pertinent here bearing in mind that some customers just don’t have much idea about what’s truly right and crucially, important for them. As non-experts in the area, sometimes they would demand products or services that could actually be destructive for your business, and even for themselves. Indeed hearing each of their concerns and wants could help give you insight to improve your business, but heeding all of them does seem too far-fetched.
The case for this is more profound in some specific industries. For instance, in the healthcare industry, bedridden patients might ask for a specific medicine that they are familiar with but as an expert you know it’s not going to make them any better. Suggesting otherwise, at the expense of customer satisfaction, might sometimes be a better solution in such a dire matter.
The unforeseen danger
Having read the arguments above demonstrates that the case looks indeed strong against the adage – that customers might not exactly be always right. In their cry they have a point, they might do, but that doesn’t necessarily make their opinions imperative for your business to submit to. Sure we can take the good from them, but if they remain insatiable maybe it’s time to let go and focus your effort somewhere else instead.
But nevertheless there are some dilemmas. Often forgotten is that adopting this view has its own pitfall that potentially could be as detrimental. This is a case of slippery slope that companies need to avoid:
Company could end up being too self-righteous
Supposing that customer is not always right doesn’t necessarily mean a business would be the opposite – that they would always be right. This misconception would adversely lead to a rigid business outlook by being less adaptive to change, and in this age of rapid development this could potentially lead to gradual downfall.
Amongst many, a good example can be seen through Nokia, the IT company which once enjoyed a good period of industry leadership in late 20th century and early 21st. According to an analysis by Julian Birkinshaw published in Fortune, the ‘disregard of changing customer demands’ on top of its unwillingness to change was attributed to be one of the primary reasons for the company’s defeat to iPhone, Samsung and many other competitors in the last decade – showing that customers sometimes do know what they want, and need.
- It might reduce the opportunity for conversion and growth
Another potential ramification from focusing effort and attention only on the agreeable customers is that companies could unconsciously try to avoid conflicts, which could actually be detrimental for business development. It is true that some customers might be painfully difficult to deal with, but remember in each interaction presents an opportunity to learn – even on perhaps how to prevent such problems happening again in the future – or an opportunity to convert, as the dissatisfied could turn loyal with a change of mind. Evidently in deciding whether to invest in a conflict is worth it requires a certain shrewdness.
A good example for company that shows willingness to embrace such difficulty includes Tesla. Boasting transparency and willingness to take and engage in customer feedback including the bad ones, the company manages to continuously improve their products and create a more proactive relationship with their ever expanding customers.
It does sound like a cliche but in the end it’s truly a balancing act.
Customers evidently are entitled to have opinions and for that they would always think they’re right, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to decide whether they ultimately are or not – for your business. If you think they have a point then it might be wise to take a step backward and assess a situation further. If you think they don’t then you have all the power to fire your customers at will.
It requires a good judgment for sure, as such the adage would long remain a great dilemma.