Everyone has heard the slogan, “The customer is always right.” And everyone who runs a business knows that it’s not true. Customers are often wrong. They complain about silly things, about things that are their own fault, about the cause of a problem and ways to fix it and, especially, about what it will cost to fix it to their satisfaction. 

Jim Olsztynski

Everyone has heard the slogan, “The customer is always right.” And everyone who runs a business knows that it’s not true.

Customers are often wrong. They complain about silly things, about things that are their own fault, about the cause of a problem and ways to fix it and, especially, about what it will cost to fix it to their satisfaction. I’m not saying they’re always wrong. If you’re smart and listen carefully to their complaints, you’ll probably discover that they’re right at least 50 percent of the time if not more. But the subject at hand is how to handle situations when they are most assuredly wrong.

Sometimes customers are more than wrong. Sometimes they may be downright ornery. One of the hardest things to come to grips with in human nature is the difficulty people have in admitting mistakes. The more you point out that it’s their fault, the more they’ll deny it, and the more they’ll hate you for being right.

So the first thing to realize is that no matter how much in the wrong they may be, it’s impossible to win an argument with a customer. Winning means they lose, and nobody likes to lose. So your prize for winning is to kiss off a customer forever. Even worse, that customer will badmouth you to everyone who will listen. Studies have shown that a customer disgruntled with a business will tell on average 15 other people about the bad experience. Odds are great that those 15 people won’t bother to listen to your side of the story if they are in need of your services. They’ll just steer clear of you and give their business to a competitor. So it pays not to “win” arguments with customers, but to prevent them from happening or make the customer feel like the winner.

This means that even though the customer isn’t always right, you can’t afford to do away with “the customer is always right” as a basic business philosophy. The idea behind that slogan is that the customer may not always be right, but we’d better conduct our business as if he or she is.

Here’s another way of looking at it: “Even when the customer isn’t right, it’s still our fault, because we didn’t provide him with all the information needed to understand the situation.” This falls into that realm of preventing arguments in the first place.

Sometimes customer complaints stem from unrealistic expectations, often fostered by the business itself. For instance, tire manufacturers are noted for fielding many complaints about their product. That’s because tire makers tend to run dramatic ads - we’ve all seen them - touting their brand’s durability. Along the way they fail to mention that even the sturdiest brands have trouble overcoming tire terminators such as potholes and nails. Similarly, in order to land a job contractors may exaggerate their ability to perform and this can come back to haunt them. Remember this: if you tell someone you can do a job in seven days and it takes you 10, you’re a bum in their eyes. But if you tell them the job will take two weeks and you finish in 10 days, you’re a hero. Same performance, different perceptions.

No matter how hard you try to avoid them, misunderstandings will inevitably arise. When it reaches this stage, the key is to make the customer feel like a winner.

It’s in your interest as well as the customer’s to do so, because the same studies that show disgruntled customers will blab about you to everyone they know also show that customers who get their complaints handled satisfactorily often become the most loyal customers and best sales reps for that company. One reason for that is they usually end up getting to know one or more people in the company who get involved in resolving the problem. If those people are polite and helpful, it resounds to the benefit of the company. They establish personal bonds with the customer that go deeper than if there were no problem to bring them together so many times.

So strong is this effect that I, along with many other business consultants, recommend appointing one person in particular as the point person to handle calls from disgruntled customers. That person ought to be none other than the owner or CEO of the company.

Granted, this is not very practical if you run an extremely large company, although even then it’s a good idea for the CEO to manage disputes with very important customers. But most companies in your industry are of the size that handling customer complaints ought to be a key component of the CEO’s job description.

Too busy? Ask yourself if anything you do is more important than dealing with disgruntled customers, considering that …

• Future business and referrals are at stake, not only the job at hand.

• Each customer who goes away unhappy is likely to badmouth you to 15 other acquaintances.

• On the other hand, customers will be impressed when they see the highest ranking person in the company paying attention to their complaint; and, who is in a better position to cut through company bureaucracy to resolve the problem?

• Finally, talking with dissatisfied customers is a great way to monitor the performance of your people and identify shortcomings.

The Two-Percenters

When you adopt “the customer is always right” as a bedrock business principle, whoever deals directly with customers must be prepared to endure a certain amount of anger and verbal abuse from them. They must be trained to deal calmly and professionally with people who may shout, cuss and otherwise lose their cool. Employees with an “I don’t take guff from anyone” attitude should never be put in a position where they come in regular contact with customers.

There are limits to what anyone should have to put up with, however. Physical assault is well over the line, of course, and should become a law enforcement issue. But even short of physical abuse, there comes a point in determining whether a customer is more trouble than he or she is worth.

My personal experience in this realm dates back eons ago when I helped put myself through college by driving a taxi in the sometimes mean streets of my hometown Chicago. There I used to listen to veteran cabbies tell stories about their encounters with what they termed the “two-percenters.” As time passed, I would develop my own fair share of experiences to relate.

In our hard-won street wisdom, cab drivers had deduced that about 98 percent of the population consists of various degrees of saints and sinners. These are basically OK folks, some very friendly, some not so much, and from time to time you might have misunderstandings with any of them, but they can be reasoned with.

The other 2 percent are strictly bad news. A dark cloud of trouble follows them around to the dread of cabbies and anyone else whose livelihood entails dealing with the general public. No matter how hard you try to please the two-percenters, they will always find a reason to start a fight. Jails are filled with two-percenters, otherwise known as sociopaths. More than once I gave up trying to collect a fare, knowing that arguing would be futile and could even be fatal, in that some two-percenters are lunatics who carry guns.

It’s unlikely you would confront a two-percenter in your line of work, simply because most are too unstable to hold a steady job or own a business or home. If you do encounter one, it’s a time to ignore all that I’ve said about holding on to customers. You’d be better off without that person’s business.

There is one important thing to stress about those “two-percenters,” however. Keep that 2 percent figure in mind. It’s pretty close to an accurate ratio of society’s misfits. If you or your employees start kissing off much more than 2 percent of disgruntled customers, then it’s a sign that it’s probably your people more than the customers who are exhibiting churlish behavior. Then it’s time to sign up for a little counseling in the fine art of customer pampering.