CWB September 2002

The Customer's Usually Wrong

If you do business based solely on the old maxim about customers always being right, watch out!

By Anthony Noel

They are four of the most potentially dangerous words any businessperson can utter: "The customer's always right."

When used to gently remind employees of the courteous treatment and careful attention all customers deserve, this old adage is relatively harmless, I suppose. But there are actually businesspeople out there who have so internalized it, who are so completely convinced of its irrevocable value and truth, so totally sold on it, that they not only chant it to employees as a kind of mantra, they actually recite it to customers on a routine basis! Can you believe it?

If you happen to be one of these confused souls, you are probably somewhat puzzled at this point, if not outright flabbergasted. After all, it's true, the customer is always right! How dare I challenge this universally accepted truth?

Well, if that's how you feel, there's probably not much you will read here that will change your mind. But to those who have always had a problem with this maxim and those who - while true believers 99 percent of the time, may have left the door to their minds just a bit ajar - I say read on; you have come to the right place.

The trouble with "The customer's always right," is that there seems already to be an ample supply of customers out there who actually believe it. So of course, constantly reinforcing it to people is only going to make that problem worse. And yes, it is a problem.

The reason it's a problem is simple: It's just plain wrong. The customer is not always right and is, in fact, lucky if he is right even some of the time. The truth is that the customer is usually wrong. The funny thing is that he knows it and he only begins to believe he is always right when some clueless yahoo keeps telling him he is.

You see, the very act of seeking professional help is an admission, by the customer, that they don't know what they are doing. If they did, they wouldn't need help! Yet many businesspeople, salespeople in particular (sorry folks, but you brought this upon yourselves, are so interested in bending over backwards to please their customers that they forget about (1) what's possible, (2) what the customer can afford and, ultimately, (3) how to satisfy #1 while not losing sight of #2.

By constantly insisting that the customer can and should get whatever he wants, they convince the customer that (1) the company can make whatever the customer wants (2) at any price the customer names, thereby making him (3) satisfied and "right."

What nonsense.

Now as I said, there's nothing wrong with using "The customer's always right" as a sort of guideline for the type of courteous treatment employees should extend to customers. The customer always does deserve our undivided attention, common courtesy and even a willingness to go the extra mile in making him happy. But that's where it stops - where it must stop, in fact, if we are to enjoy profitable, long-term business relationships.

Making it happen really comes down to two things: Confidence and Conviction.

Particularly with "young" businesses, I see a lack of confidence all the time. Couple this with a strong adherence to "the customer's always right" philosophy, and it's pretty easy to see why many jobs are losers for young shops. How long they lose is based largely on how quickly they learn from their mistakes. If they put blinders on and keep adhering to the philosophy of "The customer's always right," their learning curve will be a long one, indeed.

The fact is, confidence comes from knowledge. If you know that something a customer is asking you for will not work, you can steer them clear of it early in the process, and you can do it based upon direct experience. But if you don't gain knowledge from the jobs you lose on or, more precisely, if you refuse to apply the knowledge you gain from such jobs, you will have a hard time ever turning a profit.

This brings us to conviction. The will to apply that knowledge, to challenge customers and remind them of the reasons they have engaged your services, comes from conviction, from a strong belief in your abilities, in your knowledge and in the unique talents you bring to the project at hand.

Despite what "the customer's always right" proponents may have to say about it, asserting such conviction is neither disrespectful nor ignorant of the customer's best interests. On the contrary, you owe it to your customers to be direct and honest about what is and is not a good idea. Because if you don't, you may not be around to do the work next time. And if the customer doesn't recognize that or see the importance of that, ask yourself: Do I really want to work for him in the first place?

Herein lies the real danger in propagating the notion of "the customer's always right." It makes for snide, smarmy, know-it-all customers who, in fact, know very little and can't even see the detriment they do to themselves and those working for them when they insist that they are always right.

So please - the last thing these folks need is encouragement. Assert your confidence and conviction, and show these people why they need you and what you can do for them.

And you know that sign hanging in your lobby that says, "The customer's always right"? Well, there's a trash can right over there.

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