Everyone has heard the slogan, “The customer is always right.” And everyone who runs a business knows that it’s not true.
Everyone has heard the slogan, “The customer is
always right.” And everyone who runs a business knows that it’s not
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
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
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
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
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
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
• Each customer who goes away unhappy is likely to badmouth you to 15 other
• 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
• Finally, talking with dissatisfied customers is a great way to monitor the
performance of your people and identify shortcomings.
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
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
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
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
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.