Should we believe that the customer is always right?

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Image by Bench Accounting via Unsplash.

 

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noting the change of dynamics within the industry, many critics believed that such approach is starting to get outdated, and could eventually harm the company who persist to uphold it.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.

The conclusion

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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Once a prospect accept’s a vendor’s value proposition, whether, indeed, that customer is “right” for the business, the power and control is no longer on the side of the vendor.

    As Billy Joel said in his song, A Matter of Trust:

    “Some love is just a lie of the soul
    A constant battle for the ultimate state of control
    After you’ve heard lie upon lie
    There can hardly be a question of why
    Some love is just a lie of the heart
    The cold remains of what began with a passionate start
    But that can’t happen to us
    Because it’s always been a matter of trust

    The customer wants to trust – – until the trust is broken. If the vendor wants positive experiences and passionate brand advocacy, maintaining trust throughout the relationship, the assumption must be made that, whatever the customer’s issue, erring on the customer’s side will be the best strategy.

  2. I agree with Michael. As a customer, I am not always right. But, I am always the customer and thus impacti the reputation and bottom line of the organization serving me. Should I violate or ignore the protocols that govern my relationship with a service provider, I should be at risk of loosing that relationship. Customers should always be treated with respect, even when they act up. However, should a customer abuse their relationship or become a consistent financial loss to the service provider, they should not be surprised if they are encouraged to take their “business” elsewhere!

  3. Should we believe the company is always right.
    Both companies and customers can be wrong…but to say only the company is right is a problem (I am saying many customer professionals believe in the convenience of the company and the company has to be right)

  4. I’ve always liked the intent behind “the customer is always right” – that customers need to know how much we care about them and respect them. But, as a guiding principle for customer service it is untenable, and has the potential to be absolutely counterproductive. As we all know, sometimes the customer can be profoundly wrong.

    To your point about the ‘too self-righteous’, however, that is exactly the risk when we treat the ‘wrong’ customers like idiots. I have never seen a positive payoff to being disrespectful or arrogant with a customer.

    As for ‘firing’ customers – I’ve never been a fan of that concept – unless the customer simply isn’t profitable. Some of our most demanding and ‘difficult’ customers over the years have forced our company to get better at what we do in order to deal with them. The net outcome was us becoming an overall better company, for which I will always be grateful to them.

  5. Shaun…the concept of firing customers is always a challenging one. I agree with you that demanding and difficult customers can force you to get better. But, there are boundaries to “difficult.” Would you fire the customer who continually emotionally abuse your frontline employees, evan after being repeatedly asked not to? Would you fire a customer that engaged in unethical behavior and put you or your company at risk of being associated? Would you fire a customer that enjoyed sabotaging your processes for their own benefit? Some enterprises are protected monopolies (e.g., utilities in certain states) and have limited choice in what customers they can and cannot serve. But, metaphorically, if I’m an Uber driver and a customer who always gave Uber drivers a low rating requested a driver, I might elect to let that customer take a taxi. Customer relationships are governed (directly or indirectly) by a covenant that calls for some level of fair play and relatively equal reciprocity.

  6. Great points Chip! I hadn’t considered the ethically-challenging situations, and I completely agree.

    In a B2B world, there is sometimes (not often) the potential solution of reaching out to someone more senior than the abuser, but that doesn’t exist in the B2C world – which makes abandoning the relationship the only real option.

    The squishy area for me is the Uber example. Why is someone always giving a low rating? It may indeed be a risk to be avoided. But it also might be an opportunity to identify some expectations that aren’t being met, and figure out how to meet them – turning the customer from Hell into a raving fan.

    I always hesitate to recommend ‘firing’ as an option, because I’ve seen too many people use it as an alternative to being introspective and innovative. But it’s hard to argue that there are some customers and situations we’re better to steer clear of!

  7. I believe that your opening statement is half right. Consider, ” The customer is not always right but he is King and must always be treated as such.”
    That way no matter what the circumstance all your employees know that they have to be respectful and focused on the customer irrespective of the situation. When you can do that, you will have a great place for customers to go to and they will.

  8. Anytime we invoke absolutes – in this case, always right – we limit choices. That’s sometimes a good thing, e.g. when decision expediency is paramount. But we also shroud the ability to see shades of gray, and to bring them to bear in making effective decisions. In complex buyer-seller engagement, it can be very difficult to definitively declare a given interaction as ethically pure.

    This is especially problematic when making assessments of what constitutes fair play. The edict, the customer is always right begs asking, “. . . but what about, what about, what about, and what about . . .” To me, non-hypothetical conditions (Chip pointed out a few) provide ample reason to discard the putative rule.

    I think a more actionable (and fruitful) question is, “As vendors, how do we respond when we perceive that a customer [or prospect] fails to behave fairly?”

  9. I remember many years ago when I was self employed and did all I could to build my customer base, I took every client I could fit into my day. Some made me a lot of money and others made me pennies. But it was all about business building.

    At some point the business is self sufficient and has a large enough repeat client base to be more choosy in who they do business with. As Chip touched on, it may be time to “fire” a customer at this stage and focus on those that are willing to have a win win for both sides.

    Is the customer always right? Who know” What is right for one may not be right for another.

  10. Andrew, I agree but I am not sure I want the company to judge if the Customer is irrational.
    I am often insistent when I know I am right, but the company keeps insisting they are right, and hide behind their corporate shield. I had a problem with my HP printer, and they insisted the problem was with my internet provider, who insisted they had nothing to do with the problem. The internet provider visited and found nothing wrong. After many calls HP came and found a problem.
    Should I be fired because the company thought I was wrong?
    This is the problem with letting the company decide. We are unable to escalate beyond the call center and so we are wrong.
    Not suggesting we cannot be wrong….

  11. Hi Gautam: I don’t want there to be any confusion over fairness vs. irrationality. I am not in any way implying that customers perceived as unfair are irrational. Indeed, a customer’s action can be perceived as unfair and be highly rational. Rationality and fairness are not mutually exclusive.

    Sticking with the edict, ‘the customer is always right’ might shorten employee training, and definitely simplifies decision making, but it provides weak guidance for addressing the breadth of situations that occur between buyers and sellers. And it imposes horrible dissonance when a customer’s behavior is patently dishonest or malevolent.

    In my view, saying, “the customer is sometimes right” doesn’t diminish or extinguish any company’s customer-centricity creds.

    Helping employees make the best decisions and to follow the right protocol when customers are not fair is difficult. That first step involves knowing what ‘unfairness’ is, and coaching employees how to deal with it in ways that comport with the company’s policies.

  12. Andy, my point was that the company is not always right. The customer has a choice and leaves. And the point being made by you is sometimes the customer is nto right, and the company has a right to get rid of him
    I agree.
    My only point was sometimes even when the customer is right the company thinks he is wrong, as in the example of my HP printer.

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