The Customer Is Not Always Right

If I had to describe the key principle behind organizational democracy in one word, it would be “respect.” And one powerful sign of respect is candor.

Too many managers substitute trite slogans for dialogue, disrespecting their coworkers’ intelligence. For example, many declare, “the customer is always right.” Really?

Sure, it’s a fine, time-tested metaphor for exceptional customer service, but it is only a metaphor, and it rings hollow at the front counter, where any worker can tell you that not only is the customer not always right; the customer is not always sane. It takes all kinds to make a world, and for some reason they all show up on my shift.

If we want to respect our coworkers’ intelligence, let’s concede that the customer is not always right, but the customer is always the customer, and that is a title worthy of respect and deference.

The customer is a key partner in the enterprise, fueling the exchange of value that makes a business a business. One might view each customer as a gift. Difficult customers are as much a gift as any other, even if more strangely wrapped. I like to remind coworkers that if we have to suffer and struggle to deal with some of our customers, the least we can do is serve them so well they give us money.

A while back, I watched a plumber remove the cap from an overfull septic tank. He jumped back as the lid came off, grimacing at the powerful odor. Then he turned toward me, smiled, and said, “smells like money.” Every time I face a difficult customer, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “smells like money.”

A mature dialogue about customer service includes a frank recognition that we value our coworkers very much; that they are, in fact, the second most important people in the company. The customer edges them out for first place, and that’s just a simple fact of business.

If you want to declare that the customer is always right, be my guest. But don’t use the slogan to end conversations on customer service. Make it the point of departure for opening a dialogue with coworkers. Who are our best customers and why? Which customers are difficult and how can we help them? Respectful questions lead to respectful answers.

The customer is not always right and everyone knows it, including the customer. If we choose to be in business, however, it’s our job to treat customers right, even when they’re wrong.

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One Response to The Customer Is Not Always Right

  1. Sam Chapman says:

    The first bold line takes me back to Paul uttering that phrase many times. I’ve never forgotten it and have used it often.

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