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The customer is always right, except when they’re not

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I’ve been doing some customer service training for my employer, so I’ve been reading a lot of stuff that other folks have to say on the subject. Today I found, on, a wonderful article on the nonsensical attitude that “the customer is always right”:

Here are the top five reasons why “The customer is always right” is wrong.

  1. It makes employees unhappy
  2. It gives abrasive customers an unfair advantage
  3. Some customers are bad for business
  4. It results in worse customer service
  5. Some customers are just plain wrong

I think my customers are always right about one thing: they have a problem that they want solved. That’s pretty much it.

Now, for those who fall into categories #2 and #3 above, I’d say that their problem is that they need someone to abuse. I’m smart enough to realize that I may not be the one to solve that particular problem, and I’m willing to concede that perhaps someone else can better serve that customer.

Though I am in full agreement with the above five ideas, I’d like to suggest a sixth: It’s simply too much to ask of our customers that they always be right.

My thought is this: our jobs are becoming more and more specialized, and we, the providers of service, are therefore expected to know a great deal about very few things. To place on every customer the expectation that he or she will know, even better than we do, what “good” means in the context of the service we’re providing is too heavy a burden for them.

My favorite example of this (I think I read it in a book by Tom Hopkins, but I’m not certain) is about a car salesman. He sold high-testosterone cars, something along the lines of Ferrari, the commission on the sale of one being a year’s salary for just plain folk. A traveling salesman came in and asked to be shown one of their top models. The salesman found out that the guy put about five years’ worth of miles on a car every year and sent the customer down the street to a Mercedes dealership instead. His rationale was that the Mercedes, having a diesel engine, was a much better choice for someone on the road that much.

There was no way that particular customer would have known that. Cars weren’t what he knew. If the salesman had chanted, “The customer is always right,” he would have created one very unhappy customer… and that customer would have been telling everyone who asked him about his car that he was really unhappy with it. If I’m recalling the story correctly, the customer instead had sent several friends and acquaintences to that salesman, more than making up for the “loss” of commission.

Of course, working in a hospital, I see a lot of customers who are “just plain wrong.” Consider, for example, the suicidal patient. If we would consider him to be right, we’d hand him a razor blade and a set of instructions. We don’t do that because, even though he’s our customer, he’s wrong. He doesn’t know what we know. That has to be OK.

I have a story of my own that had to do with a customer who was a great combination of numbers 2, 3, and 5. Nasty human being she was. I can’t mention any of the particulars, but I’ll say this: in the process of helping her with what was apparently a medical emergency, I left a bruise, and she had the audacity to file a formal complaint against me for it. She took it all the way to our CEO and demanded that I apologize to her. The CEO refused to either compel or allow me to apologize to her because she was wrong and he knew it. Now… would you care to ask me how I feel about working for him? Or do you already know?

So I think putting employees head of customers is a great idea as long as the employees are putting the customers first. We on the front lines have to know that our managers trust us to do the right thing.

I did say that I wasn’t going to make this blog into a customer service blog, but this one was too good to pass up. Thanks for indulging me.

Written by Michael DeBusk

May 31st, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Posted in Articles,Business