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The Customer Is Always Right?

Are you old school?

If you are you were probably brought up on the old maxim “the customer is always right” meaning that whatever they said or complained about, you had to fix. If you were of a certain personality you’d spend your time being terrified about what the customer might say.

On the other hand you might be of the view that your own rights matter and if a customer was being unreasonable it is reasonable to tell them to go jump!

Well both views are probably wrong in today’s markets. After all, what’s being unreasonable is a subjective matter and if your subjective gate was set too low you might find just a few too many customers jumping!

As for the customer being always right – well there are limits aren’t there?

So what’s today’s middle way? There’s got to be some way to live up to your own values, not take too much stick, and also to turn the customer’s views around to your benefit. What I’d like to propose is that today’s maxim is “the customer should always feel to be right.”

Let’s try to be logical about this and put negative customer engagement into some typical categories.

The first is the reasonable complaint. This is a complaint about quality or standard that was not “as promised”. Don’t forget that “as promised” can also mean implied promise. You don’t have to specifically express a standard but if you said for example “our hotel rooms provide facilities for you to work in” and all you had was a coffee table I think it is implied that “facilities to work in” is not a coffee table and implies a desk of some sort.

The second is an objectively unreasonable complaint. Note I include the word “objectively” so it must pass some non-emotive test as to reasonableness. In the above example for instance I think it would be objectively unreasonable if the facilities provided were a small desk but the complaint was that the desk was not large enough to accommodate a full sized PC, printer, and room to write on.

The third is an emotional complaint. This is the most difficult one to handle because it is not only objectively unreasonable but is usually based on the customer’s emotional response to the product or service, like “I just don’t like the waiter’s attitude!”

Let’s now put the mantra of “the customer should always feel to be right” to each of these complaint categories.

What you have to do with the first, reasonable complaint, is obvious.

Fix it.

You have made known a quality standard, whether expressly or by implication. You simply have to live by that standard or change the promise.

So that the customer always feels to be right, check your product or service, and your delivery of product and service, against whatever expressed or implicit promises that you, your brand. and your marketing messages have made. Make any changes necessary, either in the product, service, delivery or promise. The reasonable complaint should just not happen.

But what if it does? Something has slipped through the cracks and a complaint occurs. Let’s take the example of the hotel room that promises working facilities but provides a coffee table.

In this case we take a leaf from the old customer service manual and we upgrade the customer outside the context of his complaint. Either upgrade his room to a higher specification room with a desk (and free wifi!) or provide free access and facilities to the hotel’s business centre. The objective is to get the customer leaving with a good war story (“I gave them what for about their coffee table, and to do them credit they upgraded me to the business suite”).

In the second category of the objectively unreasonable complaint, the task is to make the customer think that they’re complaint has been handled appropriately.

One of the ways to do this is to ask the simple question (that incidentally does not admit to any truth of the unreasonableness of the complaint) “I’m sorry, what can we do to fix it for you?”

This moves the customer away from complaint mode and thinking of ways to justify the complaint, to one where they are thinking about what can be done. If nothing else this removes emotion and the need to win from the complaint. Research has shown that when asked this question, most people actually provide a reasonable answer, and it may well be one which you can comply with without admitting any truth about the unreasonable nature of the complaint. It becomes win-win.

If the answer is unreasonable (“I want a large bench brought into my room”), the suggestion can be debated (“I’m sorry but we don’t have a large enough bench”) in such a way that it then has the ability to be modified (“Why don’t we bring in a printer trolley to set up next to the desk?”). Again the war story we want to hear from the customer is one that is complimentary (“I huffed and I puffed and they were flexible enough to set up a work station for me within the hour”).

When people are unreasonable however you may not be able to save every situation, but remember the objective is to make the customer think the complaint has been handled appropriately – and there are many ways to skin that cat.

As I have already said, the third category of emotional complaint is the hardest to handle.

The objective in this category is to take the heat out of any conversation without sacrificing your business values. If the customer walks away dissatisfied but not unhappy, it’s a good result. The first step is the same question”what can we do to fix this?”

Again it allows the customer to move away from an emotional response to one that can be discussed.

Let’s take the hapless waiter. If we ask the customer how we can fix this and the answer is unreasonable (“I want the waiter to approach me on his knees and beg”) we can express reasonableness (“We’ll do what we can to fix this but to humiliate a human being may not be the best way to do it now, how else can we fix this for you?”). Hopefully this leads to debate from one position (“I want him to apologise in public in the middle of the restaurant”) to another more reasonable one (“Do we want to disturb that nice couple celebrating their engagement? I believe you said his attitude was poor when he was serving you wine, how about I get our award-winning sommelier to personally look after you all evening?”).

If necessary to avoid confrontation, perhaps the waiter has “gone on a break and is unavailable” and the Manager personally apologises for any “misunderstanding” and offers a free cocktail.

An emotional complaint is often a lose-lose situation. The best you can do is take the heat out of any discussion and hope for the best. If the customer leaves never to return, so be it – they felt they were right!

And so we end as it began, the old school mantra revised into making the customer feel as right as possible without sacrificing your own values!

Customer service is only one part of being in business. Being in business is about juggling many balls in the air at the same time, and if you feel the need to grab one ball at a time and work on it systematically, I have the tools, models, systems and templates for you, come and join me!

You might also be interested in all the other articles about customer service, marketing, planning and organisational development in my blog at teikoh.com – see you there.

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