Is the customer always right? It’s a trick question, especially for anybody who has ever done time on the front lines of business. It’s also a very old business concept. Is it outdated? The concept of the customer always being right is over a century old. It was implemented as a marketing motto in a U.S. department store in 1906, with the intention of enticing women who were, for the first time, able to shop leisurely and without a chaperone.
Unfortunately, the belief that was supposed to attract good customers (back before World War I) also allows bad ones to hurt you today. Especially if you’re a small business. Why? And more importantly, how do you fix it?
First, by adhering to it, you’re allowing customers to rule the roost. If a guest orders Combo 5 on sourdough, then complains that the sourdough is sour and asks for it on whole grain wheat, then complains that the whole grain has too much whole grain…at what point do you start losing money? All this complaining takes your servers (and cooks) away from their other responsibilities and makes other guests uncomfortable. Fix: some customers expect the impossible. You aren’t responsible for catering to their delusions.
Second, you’re teaching customers how to treat your company and your people. If you insist that your people tolerate abuse when working with difficult customers, you’re putting them under major stress. Spend a day in that job, if you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be called names and threatened. Fix: your first priority should be to your people. I’ve said this before: employees cannot communicate that their company cares for customers if they do not feel it cares for them. If a call must be disconnected or the customer needs walked out, it gives everyone a chance to breathe and cool off. At the same time, it communicates that your business does not tolerate abuse.
Third, you know all those customer feedback programs? Toss them out or redesign them yourself. They probably aren’t measuring what you need to know. Your stats are ruined when somebody complains that his new sporty XJ9 shoes aren’t red (though he had a clear choice between black and blue on the shelf and knew what he was buying), and then goes on to trash everything possible in the survey because he’s just an idiot. That feedback is worthless, but if you aren’t ignoring responses like his, you’re operating under the false impression that it’s real. Fix: ditch unhelpful feedback programs or fix them, or you’ll never know where the real problems are.
Fourth, do you really love your competitors so much you’d rather take loss after loss to spare them? Dump a professional prima donna customer onto them! You know who I mean: the lady who complains that her bill is “outrageous”, but she’s been “a loyal customer for years” and spends “a ton of money” with your company, and “the least you could do is give her a discount and maybe some free stuff” or she’s going to go somewhere else. Fix: Take a look. In reality, her bill is accurate, she’s only been with you for 14 months, and she spends less than the average customer. Between the time she’s wasting and the freebies and discounts she wants, you’re barely breaking even. Let her go.
Finally, negative word of mouth can be painful. Especially to a small business. Especially online. But you know that the people in these examples don’t have much influence or audience. You know they don’t contribute to your reputation when they’re happy. And if you’ve been on social media in this century, you know bad customers are being exposed. Be professional, be polite, but be about your business. Treat your people like they matter, and they’ll treat your customers that way too – at least the customers that DO matter. And that can only help you.