Leaders: The Customer Isn’t Always Right

surpriseBuck up and stand up for your teammates. That was the gist of one of the points in this post and a couple comments below it. As leaders, we can’t be so quick to cower when a customer pitches a fit in our lobby, shrieking at the top of his lungs about how the customer is always right blah blah blah…

I’m not saying the customer isn’t right sometimes. Of course they’re right sometimes. And when those times come, we need to open and own up to our mistake. We’re human, after all; we’re going to make them. I’m just saying that customers aren’t always right. I mean, seriously. In what other context can any human claim with a straight face that they are literally incapable of being wrong? It’s silliness I tell you. Silliness.

I could do a whole post or twelve about that, but that’s not the point of today’s post. I think leaders have an opportunity here. It’s not like any of the parties involved actually think that customers are always right. You don’t think that. Your team doesn’t think that. Heck, the customers don’t even think that. They just know that somewhere along the way, some nincompoop coined that stupid phrase and employees have been beaten over the head with it and managers have cowered behind it ever since.

It plays out something like this:

Employee: “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t refund your insufficient funds fee. We’ve already refunded three of them and our policy only allows us three refunds per customer per year.”

Customer Who Isn’t Always Right: “Is there someone else I need to speak to that can actually do something about this for me?”

Employee: “I’d be glad to let you speak with my manager, but like I said, our policy is pretty clear and we’ve already given you refunds three different times. I’d also be glad to help you work through your budget and set you up with one of our financial planning gurus to help get you back on track.”

Customer Who Isn’t Always Right: “Obviously you can’t help me. Can you go get your manager?”

Employee: “Sure. Excuse me.” (Picks up phone, dials manager’s extension, and requests his presence at the workstation.)

Manager: “How can I help you, sir?”

Customer Who Isn’t Always Right: “Your stupid employee here won’t refund my stupid fees.”

Manager: (Looks at the employee.) “We won’t refund his fees?”

Employee: “Well, no, but only because the policy says we can refund fees three times and–”

Customer Who Isn’t Always Right: “Well you’ve refunded them before so I think you should refund them again. What’s that phrase? The customer’s always right? Apparently your genius employee didn’t go to customer service school the day they taught that.”

Manager: (Nodding thoughtfully) “Sir, I’m sorry you’ve had to go through such a hassle here today. I’m going to refund your fees. You’re right; customers are our top priority.”

customers-attitudeWe see and hear that sort of thing fairly often, don’t we? Maybe it’s not refunding fees, but it’s something else.

Employee does what she’s supposed to do, but it ticks off a customer.

Customer gets ugly with employee.

Manager pacifies customer, giving tacit approval to customer’s behavior, and inadvertently delivering subtle demoralizing blow to employee–all in one fell swoop.

While a certain amount of customer complaining and frustration is to be expected in any customer service position, I think we as leaders have an opportunity to do a better job at sticking up for our employees and teammates when a customer’s behavior is over the line. In the fictitious account above, the employee was simply doing what he/she was supposed to do according to the company’s policy.

So when the Customer Who Isn’t Always Right stepped over the line from frustrated and confused to insulting and demeaning in front of the Manager, the Manager should have politely asked the Customer Who Isn’t Always Right to refrain from insulting his employee. For bonus points, the Manager could have confirmed to the Customer Who Isn’t Always Right that the Employee was correct in stating what the policy was, but was also correct in offering the other sorts of assistance that he/she did.

The Manager is offering support on two levels there: (1) He’s sending a clear signal that he will not allow his employees to be treated a certain way, regardless of who it is; and (2) he’s confirming the employee’s operational knowledge and execution in the situation. He’s not undercutting the employee.

As leaders, sticking up for our teams can’t just be something we do when it’s easy or when there’s not much on the line. We need to be ready and willing to do it when it matters most.

7 thoughts on “Leaders: The Customer Isn’t Always Right

  • It’s a great point Matt. Customers are people, and as people, we’re just not always right. Obviously, pleasing the customer is a key component to building a successful business, but the saying that the “customer is ALWAYS right” is hollow marketing and disingenuous. Thanks for trying to debunk that trite marketing slogan just a bit 🙂

    • Agreed, Thad. I think we take serving other humans (customer service) too lightly, actually, in that it’s really a cool thing when you think about it. A life of service isn’t just in one or two particular vocations.

      But in a more concrete business sense, yes, we have to be really, really good at it; even when things get a little ugly. It’s just about mutual respect between humans, and leaders providing appropriate support when flagrant and repeated violations of that respect occur.

  • Sometimes you just have to fire a customer. Especially If they are , wrong, abusive, petulant, ignorant, loud , obnoxious or repetitive complainers of the serial variety. The respect you gain and the loyalty from your team are immeasurable.

    • Indeed. I don’t mean for it to sound like I’m being flippant about it, because I don’t take something like that lightly at all. But the bottom line is that sometimes it has to be done.

      I’ve had bosses who would do just about anything to pacify a customer. It’s almost like you think that if the customer told them to dress like a clown and sing opera music while playing hopscotch or else they’ll take their business elsewhere, that they’d hop on Amazon, track down a clown suit, take some private voice lessons, and do some stretching exercises in hopes of being limber enough for hopscotch.

      And I’ve had bosses (like my current one) who have repeatedly, and more times than most of the organization even knows, stuck up for them with a customer and even gone as far as to ask them not to return because no one was allowed to speak to his teammates in that way.

    • You’re so right, Mike. I have fired a few customers, and would do so again in the same situation. I don’t believe any of us are paid to put up with outright abuse… and after all, membership is a privilege.

  • Hello Matt,

    Great article!

    In this part of the world, businesses often find themselves having to accommodate clients’ demands that are clearly wrong. I have seen it happen over and over.

    This is actually something that took me quite a while to get used to, because I come from a country where customers do not always come first.

    I am not sure which approach is the best, but there is one thing I know. If a boss does not support his employees when the situation calls for it, there is a serious problem…

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