Why The Customer is Not Always Right

I don’t know if whomever came up with the expression, “the customer is always right”, is more deserving of our scorn or pity. This misguided soul must have had a challenging time running their business, catering to every client's wish and whim.

If you've ever lost sleep over a client service issue, you'll know exactly what I mean. Here are a couple of reasons why I feel the customer might not always be right, and why it's important for us all to be honest about it.

1. Ethical businesses protect customers from themselves

Problem customers aren’t likely going out of their way to be difficult. In fact, they simply might not have the knowledge or experience needed to address the situation. It's like bringing a knife to a gun fight (has the potential to cause a lot of damage while not really getting the job done). We see this on occasion in the marketing industry, as companies place juniors into marketing roles simply because they are more familiar with Social than they are (overlooking that use of these tools does not equate to business or marketing knowledge).

Imagine the disservice we'd be performing if we treat these individuals as if all of their ideas are the best thing since sliced bread. It would become impossible for us to do our best work… and in the process, prevent us from delivering value for their investment. I'm not saying we shouldn't hear them out, understand their reasoning, and then gently correct them where possible. But blind obedience for the sake of the dollar doesn't make sense either.

If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters. – Alan Simpson

Going along with every wish your customer has might be easy enough in the short term, but at what cost to them and you both in the long run?

2. Your integrity, respect, and sanity are worth holding on to

I feel this is not discussed enough in business and customer service circles, and that it’s more important than a lot of people realize. Great things happen when we know we are working hard, firing on all cylinders creatively, and feeling good about the contributions we are making to our customers’ successes.

The opposite of that is true when we let others trample on us, or when we weakly acquiesce to demands that we know aren’t well-thought out simply because we need to pay the bills. When we know customers aren’t right, and don’t tell them so, we are almost karmically bound to suffer as a result.

If I could teach only one value to live by, it would be this: Success will come and go, but integrity is forever. ... It takes having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences will be. Building a reputation of integrity takes years, but it takes only a second to lose... – Amy Rees Anderson on Forbes

While “the customer is always right” is a popular saying, it's also one that we all know just isn’t always accurate. Even its corollary – the customer isn’t always right, but is always the customer – can be misleading if we take it to mean that agreeing with people is automatically equal to doing our best work and giving the highest form of service we can offer.

To bring this closer to home, very recently, a client's junior manager angrily declared that my team and I had to respect her, because she was the client. The outburst prompted us to write a letter releasing the company from our services contract.

Don't get me wrong, customers deserve our respect, and our best work, but not always our unquestioned compliance or obedience. There's no win/win/win in that. We should never be combative when they are wrong, but we do need to stand up for what we know to be true, fair, and ethical.

As my colleague Lyndsay Peters on occasion would remind me, "What happens when you don't stick to your guns? You lose them."

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