The Customer is NOT Always Right

When did it become so unforgivable, unconscionable, unthinkable to be wrong? Being right is no longer an absolute, but a relative concept. The customer is always right. We said it; therefore, it is. No, sometimes the customer is wrong--factually, inarguably, unbelievably wrong. But, in the name of customer satisfaction, we've decided they're right. Always. No questions asked.

Now, I get the reasoning behind having a policy that the customer is always right. Actually, the first time I heard the concept, I thought it was pure genius. What better way to earn the highest levels of customer satisfaction and retention than to always side with the customer? Then I spent several years working in customer service for my own business, and it became abundantly clear: we've created monsters.

Customers have caught wind of this crazy notion that they're always right, and (shocker) they like it. Unfortunately, now many customers are not happy unless they get whatever they want, whenever they want. They equate good customer service with getting their desired outcome. And businesses equate happy customers with good customer service. So, businesses capitulate and assure the customer's desired outcome, which results in happy customers and excellent customer service. The customer is always right!

To everyone who still ascribes to this philosophy, why do you have policies? Your return policy is irrelevant if customers get to dictate whatever policy works best for them.

Even if you don't allow customers to hijack your policies, customers lie. They'll call with an issue and, when they don't get what they want, they'll call back hoping to get a different customer service rep or send an email and tell a different story in hopes of getting a different result. They'll say, "that's not what your website said when I placed my order." They'll claim their order was placed fraudulently and may even dispute the charge with their credit card company after admitting in a voicemail that, after placing the order, they realized they ordered the wrong item.

To those who enable this bad behavior with your "customer is always right" mantra, you're making it really difficult for the rest of us because unreasonable is not only accepted, it's welcomed. While you may think that gives you a competitive advantage (and it may in the short term), just wait. The free-for-all will catch up to you. The cost will be too great. And here's the kicker: your reasonable customers will have to foot the bill for all those unreasonable customers. If you choose to pay for your customer's mistakes, you're choosing to penalize customers who didn't make mistakes, your most loyal and valuable, core group of customers.

Deciding that the customer is always right is a cop out. It's an admission that you don't know how to provide good customer service without giving up and allowing the customer to dictate what constitutes good customer service. We can provide excellent customer service without sacrificing right and wrong. How?

Take the time to listen to your customer's concerns and fully understand the issue. Empathize. Keep in mind there is another human being on the other end of the conversation, and you have no idea what is going on in their life. Don't allow the repetition to turn you into a robot. Even today, I had to call a company about a billing issue. I received a notification that my account is past due, but I was confident I had paid in full. Without even looking at my account history, the representative accused me of lying and demanded that I pay the balance or risk disruption in service. Fortunately, I kept copies of invoices and receipts, so I was able to work with a manager to determine it was a billing error. Even the manager didn't have the courtesy to apologize.

Customers don't contact you because everything went well and they just wanted you to know how happy they are. Expect to be lambasted, and instead of going on the defensive, respond by repeating exactly what the customer told you. Even interpret and express their feelings. I understand you're upset because you received your order and realized you ordered the wrong item, and you're unhappy with our return/exchange policy. Is that correct? Get the customer to actually state "that's right." Why? It's a common negotiating tactic. Earlier this year, there was even an article about it on Medium. Make an emotional connection with the customer, and not just a robotic, negotiating tactic connection. The tactic works when it's not a tactic. Care about your customers enough to be able to articulate their feelings and issues.

Once you're on the same page, determine and present your customer's options. If the customer is wrong, tell him. But don't just recite policy. Understand your policies and explain why those are his options. I've never met a customer who was happy to pay return shipping on an item they decided they didn't want, but most will appreciate your genuine concern, understand your policy and perspective, and accept their own mistake.

The customer is not always right, but that doesn't mean you provide poor customer service. You can find a balance between making good business decisions and maintaining good relationships with customers without abdicating your decisions to your unhappy customers. Foster customer respect instead of happiness.

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