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Is the Customer Really "Always Right?"

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When I am the customer, then absolutely, the customer is always right. :-) However, when I am not the customer, then I am not so sure...

"The customer is always right," is a nice pithy phrase, but by falling back on that little aphorism I think people end up missing the point.

Here are four situations where the idea "the customer is always right" may not be enough.

1) Ludicrous Requests

One of the biggest life lessons I have come across is, "if you don't ask, you don't get," and it's related corollary, "the worst thing they can say is no."

(Sidenote: If you've ever made a cold call or approached someone in a bar that led to a person berating and humiliating you, well then you know there are worse things they can say then "no." The best example of this is in the movie "Love Potion #9" with Tate Donovan and Sandra Bullock. Early in the movie Tate gets destroyed by a woman after his friends convince him, "the worst that can happen is she will say no." Later, when he is using his "super-pheromone spray" he gets to turn the tables and reject the same woman in the same way. If you have ever been rejected in this fashion, than go see this movie just for that scene - it is the ultimate "rejection revenge fantasy." But I digress...)

The challenge with this belief from the business side is that people will ask for anything and everything on the slim chance that you will say "yes." Requests range from the "within range of what everyone does," such as requesting a refund even though you have a clear "no refund" policy posted everywhere, to the absurd, such as a person who once demanded to come to one of my association's meetings at the member rate, even though she was not (and admitted that she was not) a member. She also did this in a rude way, and offered no justification why she should be allowed to come at the member rate, other than she just wanted to pay less, I guess.

At some point, the company or employee needs to draw the line. "The customer is always right," implies there is no line. The real issue is training people to know where that line is, and then training them to know how to effectively communicate that to the customer.

2) The Needs of the Many vs. the Needs of the One

This is my biggest pet peeve when I am a customer standing in line. There always seems to be one person who monopolizes the employee's time with mind numbingly inane questions and requests. I'm pretty patient, and I'm not talking about basic questions a person may ask. I can also understand when a person asks lots of questions to get information to help them in their buying decision.

I am talking about when a person feels it's appropriate to talk the employee's ear off with their life story (which is completely irrelevant to the buying decision) and then goes on and on and on and on and on and on in their indecision and vacillation. While they are chatting away with this person, the line backs up five, ten, twenty people deep.

Great customer service policy says to stay with the first person and help them. However, at what point does giving great customer service to one person equal giving terrible service to twenty others. What's the best approach here?

Tough question, and there's no clear answer. You can't train the employee to brush off the first person. At the same time, many other customers are getting irritated. This is where flexibility and tact come into the play. The ability to divert a chatty person with a "why don't you look at some of these options and let me help these people, and then we can chat about some of your thoughts," is invaluable.

I will say that my favorite person, and the one who gives me hope for the future of the human race, is the inane person who is chatting the clerk's ear off but who then has the presence of mind to pause, look at the line, and say, "why don't you help them first?" Warms my heart.

3) The Customer is Clearly Wrong

Customers make mistakes. I once mistakenly tried to return a pair of Bugle Boy jeans to an American Eagle store (they did not take them). When I was a kid I once tried to order an Egg McMuffin from Burger King (I didn't get one). For those who don't know and weren't tipped off by the whole "McMuffin" thing, an Egg McMuffin is a McDonald's breakfast sandwich. Delicious and fantastic for clogging arteries and causing acne, but not available at Burger King.

We've all heard the story of the person who returned snow tires to Nordstrom where the clerk accepted the refund without question - even though Nordstrom doesn't sell tires! This story is used as the quintessential "customer is always right" story. Unfortunately, according to, this story is most likely not true...

You can read the story and analysis here:

True or not, it's a nice story. Stellar customer service is a brilliant business tactic, even though it's unfortunately going the way of the Dodo. We all love people who go above and beyond for us. But let's face it, sometimes the customer is flat out wrong. Giving in to every customer request is not the best approach.

It's important to differentiate between tactics and strategies. "The customer is always right," is a great philosophy and strategy, but not a great policy or tactic. In the case where the customer is wrong, it's important to not be rude or insulting to him or her, but you can't just roll over to please them.

Unfortunately, some people have learned that even if they are wrong, if they push hard enough others will eventually give in. This leads us to:

4) Rude Customers

If there's one unfortunate side-effect of the "customer is always right" mentality it is that it somehow gives carte blanche to customers to behave rudely as if it was their right.

I hate rude people. I would advocate for fining people for rude behavior, but I don't think the courts could handle the volume of cases that would create (though if the government did fine people for being rude, that pesky federal deficit would be gone before you know it.)

There are only two excuses for a customer being rude:

1) The employee was rude to you first. I personally would rather kill 'em with kindness and walk away, but I suppose a quid pro quo response is justified

2) You are a member of the FBI's Counter Terrorist Unit in the midst of a national crisis. If watching six seasons of "24" has taught me nothing else, it's that sometimes you, "just don't have time to explain!"

Other than those two cases, rude customers are never "right." If you can, fire them. I love the idea of "firing customers"! Life is too short. Of course, you have to do this with tact, and this applies more to long term service contract type people. If you get a rude customer trying to order a hoagie from your deli, get 'em in, get 'em out, and keep smiling while you take their money.

I believe one of the main reasons people and companies (especially small businesses) should strive for financial abundance is to have the ability to walk away from any customer who is not worth the aggravation.

"The customer is always right" is a philosophy, not an action plan. A strategy, not a tactic. I teach a principle called "say 'yes and' instead of "yes, but." This basically amounts to not arguing with people and working with them. A common concern when I teach this idea is that people are afraid they will end up saying "yes" to things they don't believe in. This is the same as the idea of "the customer is always right." If you take it literally, you will give away the store.

If, as a business owner or employee, you have the customer's interests in mind and know how to communicate effectively with them, you will have a sound strategy in place to give any customer a great customer service experience.

Lesson: It's not about right and wrong. It's about getting rapport and communicating with people. The customer will often not be right, but he or she must never feel that he is wrong.

Avish Parashar is a dynamic professional speaker who shows organizations and individuals how to get what they want using the Art and Science of improv comedy. He weaves together humorous stories, witty observations, and interactive exercises from improvisational comedy to get people laughing, learning, and motivated! Avish is most commonly called upon to deliver programs on Motivation, Sales, and Communication

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