What About When the Customer is Wrong?

Call me a boat-rocker, but I don’t personally subscribe to the notion that the customer is always right. I happen to love customer service, it’s a topic I’m very passionate about and I’m always out to find shining examples of service done right. But I think it’s folly to go in thinking the customer’s needs are paramount – rather, I think it’s important to go in thinking that you’ll be interacting with a person who has needs, which may or may not align with your organization’s products, services, or mission. Sometimes, the person who gave you money, or is prepared to do so, is actually somebody else’s customer, and it’s your job to help them figure that out.

"We don't have that, but let me help you find somebody who does."

“We don’t have that, but let me help you find somebody who does.”

I’ve worked in a variety of service positions over the years, from a snowboard instructor, to a barista, to an IT helpdesk consultant, and a small handful of social media roles. My opinion years back, when I was teaching snowboarding, would have been that the customer needs to be fluffed up and treated like royalty, otherwise they won’t tip you. As a barista, I felt the same way. As an IT consultant, my opinion changed slightly, as there were no tips, and my customers were not charged for our services. These were people who simply needed my help to maintain their status quo, and while a minor network issue may take me two minutes to diagnose and fix, they may come to me belligerent, accusing us of running a sub-par organization. That position was draining, but I knew exactly what the perspective was on the customer side; I was the expert in this matter, not them, so they were dealing with a problem they had little to no capacity to fix, and thus I needed to be not only a mechanic, but an instructor. To help stem the tide of repeated problems that have quick fixes, I had to show our customers that really, they didn’t need to be our customers sometimes. A problem with your network can be as simple to fix as switching off the network switch under your desk, then switching it back on. A problem with your computer being slow can be fixed by restarting it, and freeing up some of the memory. These customers weren’t wrong to not know how to address their problems, but they were rather innocently wrong in that they couldn’t possibly handle the problem themselves.

This was an important lesson for me to learn – sometimes the customer isn’t right, and sometimes they don’t need to be anybody’s customer. Then, in spring 2011, I took a trip to New York City that I will never forget. I was there for Coffee Fest NYC, a coffee-and-tea industry event, but I also took the opportunity to hang out with some local baristas, most of whom I had never met before. One such barista, Sam Lewontin, was a revelation to talk to. He was absolutely passionate and outspoken about customer service in coffee, holding both customer happiness and product quality to high standards. However, he would be the first to tell you that sometimes a person walks into a café thinking they are your customer, when in fact they are somebody else’s, in the wrong place. As a coffee professional, and an ambassador to an industry, Sam felt that it was his job to make sure that person got something that satisfied them, even if it meant directing them to a café which serves a caramel macchiato – which cannot be found on his menu at Everyman Espresso. This, to me, was everything I felt about service, summed up beautifully.

This week, we read a short section in Olivier Blanchard’s book, Social Media ROI, all about customer service on social media. The reading started off with nine rules of online conflict resolution, the first of which was of course “The customer is always right.” Reading through the list (and the rest of the section), I agreed with everything Olivier wrote – be polite, apologize, an angry customer isn’t an enemy – with the exception of rule number 1. I don’t think this mindset is productive for everybody, because it can lead to an organization making unnecessary concessions for a single person, or even a small subset of people. I would personally be left more impressed by a service professional helping me solve my problem at somebody else’s business, rather than bending over backwards to make sure I gave them my money. The former demonstrates humility and respect, whereas the latter makes me wonder if my wallet is more valuable than my wants and needs.

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And that’s what it’s all about – good old word of mouth.

It is always important to be polite as a professional in customer service, always treat that person with respect and humanity, but keep in mind that sometimes the customer isn’t right, and sometimes they are lost. Sometimes you have to do the right thing and help them understand that their business can be directed elsewhere. And who knows, they might be so impressed with the level of service they just received that they stick around to give you their money anyway.

Do you agree with my premise, or is the customer really always right?

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