The customer is always right … right!

Before I left the academic life of post-graduate studies in law and entered the working world as an indentured labourer for a large Sandton law firm, I worked in varying capacities for a large retail chain that has since been sold and re-sold a couple times over.  As with most retail outfits, certainly at the time, the motto was “the customer is always right” and business was conducted on that basis.  At times things went well and the customer really was right.  Other times the customer most certainly was not and some grovelling was required to maintain the illusion that the red-faced jerk at the other side of the counter really was right.  What made it worse was that the latter type of customer really bought into this notion that he/she was always right and expected to be treated as if this was some kind of hereditary entitlement.

The customer is always right

Seth Godin adds an interesting twist to this mythStew Leonard’s is a massive dairy outfit and one of the things it is famous for is the rock you see to the right which contains two important rules:

Rule 1:  The customer is always right; and

Rule 2:  If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1.

According to the Stew Leonard’s website:

The success of this family-owned business and their legion of loyal shoppers is largely due to their passionate approach to customer service: “Rule — The Customer is Always Right”; Rule #2 – If the Customer is Ever Wrong, Re-Read Rule .” This principle is so essential to the foundation of the company that it is etched in a three-ton granite rock at each store’s entrance. In order to create happy customers, Stew Leonard’s is also recognized for their management philosophy: “Take good care of your people and they in turn will take good care of your customers.” It is this philosophy that has helped earn Stew Leonard’s ranking on FORTUNE Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” list for the past four consecutive years.

While these rules do set an important precedent (customers must feel that they are valued and prized, otherwise why should they deal with you?), Godin would add a third rule:

… What if the customer is an amnesiac, a jerk, a difficult blowhard badmouther? What if the customer is the sort that wears his LL Bean khakis for a year and then sends them back?

In our ultracompetitive markets, how can you possibly have a chance in the face of enormous consumer power?

The answer might surprise you. It’s the unwritten rule 3 on Stew Leonard’s famous granite rock:

If the customer is wrong, they’re not your customer any more.

In other words, if it’s not worth making the customer right, fire her.

Successful organizations (and I include churches and political parties on the list) fire the 1% of their constituents that cause 95% of the pain.

Fire them?

Fire them. Politely decline to do business with them. Refer them to your arch competitors. Take them off the mailing list. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, don’t be rude, just move on.

I assisted a former client with an issue recently.  A company listed on his site and my client removed their listing after he found certain images on their site to be objectionable.  He informed them that he would be terminating their (free) listing because their site did not meet his standard for his own business.  Needless to say the company objected.  I defended my client’s position, not because he was paying me (in fact he still hasn’t paid me) but because I believe that you should be able to choose who you do business with.  If pleasing one of your customers means you have to do things that run contrary to your business’s philosophy and perhaps even compromises your integrity then perhaps you shouldn’t be doing business with that customer.

As one of the commentators on Godin’s blog puts it, you have the power to refuse service.

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