Is The “Customer Always Right”?
You’ve heard it many times:
The customer is always right.
This is probably one of the most well-known pieces of business advice there is.
But is it accurate? Is the customer always right?
From a technical standpoint, obviously the answer is no. My first real job was calling back angry customers to calm them down and help resolve their technical issues. I did that for three years and made thousands of phone calls.
I estimate that only 30% of these angry customers actually had a valid point. The other 70% did not. They were either idiots doing very simple things incorrectly, overly-anal people who were easily annoyed or frustrated at the tiniest little things, or just assholes. Regardless, I was instructed that the customer is always right, so I did what I was told, regardless of if the customer was actually right or not.
But the saying, “the customer is always right” is not literal. It means you need to treat the customer as if he’s always right.
Okay. Is this good business advice?
The answer depends on your business structure.
If you have the type of business where you are selling to thousands of customers (like a B2C business), then yes, you need to treat the customer as if he’s always right even if he is not. In my Blackdragon business (for example), if someone wants a refund for a product they purchased, they get it, even if it’s quite obvious that they’re just ripping me off (which happens) or even if the reasons they stated they want the refund are obviously factually incorrect (which happens a lot). Doesn’t matter. The customer is always right, so I always give them their refund and I’m very nice about it. The only time I’m not nice about it is if they continue to bitch at me after I give them the refund, or if I spent an extra amount of personal time with them during their purchase. But thankfully these instances are rare.
However, if you have the type of business where you sell to a small number of big clients, such as a consulting business, social media business, and so on, then no, the customer is not always right. In these scenarios, it’s almost the exact opposite. You tell your clients exactly how you do business, and if they complain or make demands, you nicely tell them you aren’t going to do that, and that they probably need to go elsewhere.
Years ago, I had a very big, very profitable consulting client which was a company of about 200 employees with several locations. One of the key vice presidents in this company complained at a management meeting (when I was not present) that he had to wait two hours to get a call back from me when he had a problem and needed my help.
For some extra context, he called me on a Sunday afternoon. I was at the movies with my kids because, you know, it was a Sunday. Most people wouldn’t have called back until Monday. I called back in two hours on a Sunday afternoon, which I thought was pretty good customer service.
This individual thought it was bullshit he had to wait two whole hours to get a return call on a Sunday afternoon.
Later that week, I was informed by another manager that as of then, I was going to guarantee a response time of 10 minutes any time a manager or VP called me.
“I already call back within 10 minutes,” I said, “During the normal 8-5 workday.”
“Yeah,” he said, “But sometimes we need your help on weekends and evenings too.”
“I know,” I said, “I’m happy to call people back on evenings and weekends too. They’ll just have to wait a little longer.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said sheepishly, “But we really need that 10 minute response time on weekends and evenings too.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“No, not kidding.
“Whenever they call me?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said.
“For any reason whatsoever?”
“So you want me to basically be ‘on call’ 24/7 for your guys all the time? With a 10 minute response time? Even if I’m having dinner with my family or seeing a movie with my kids and so on?”
So was the customer always right? No. I told him, nicely, that I don’t work that way, and if they seriously wanted that level of service, they either needed to look elsewhere for a consultant, or we could possibly discuss jacking up my monthly retainer fees to them by a lot.
Two months later, they said goodbye. We ended a 12-year business relationship. And I had no regrets whatsoever. When you have a business with a small amount of large clients that take up your time, you are in charge. You tell the client how it’s going to be, and if they don’t like it, tough shit. Very different than “the customer is always right.”
By the way, this also applies a little when you have a business selling to lots of people. A while back, I really jacked up my coaching rates in my Blackdragon business, and even stipulated that men needed to join the SMIC Program at the Diamond or higher level to even get access to me at all. Some people really got upset about this.
Tough. While the customer is always right in a scaled business, you still need to draw a line and be clear about your limits.
While always being very nice, of course.