Is the Customer Always Right?

We’re all familiar with the old maxim,

“The customer is always right.”

As business owners it’s been drilled into our heads since the first day we started our business.

If you research it, you’ll see it attributed to the founder of England’s Selfridge Department Stores, Harry Gordon Selfridge way back in 1909.  On face value, the statement appears to be a golden rule we should all want to live by.

I mean we want our customers to know they will have a positive experience with us and we want to encourage our team members to give good service…

Right?

But a recent experience reminded me to reconsider this “rule” and see if there is a more appropriate one for today’s business world.  I think it’s a good topic for conversation amongst ourselves and want to hear your feedback and opinions.  There’s a lot to share here.

Last week, I happened to check my email (after hours) when I saw a copy of a customer service email with this subject line (in the proverbial all caps):

CANCEL ALL SUBSCRIPTIONS!

Apparently a brand new SMART Ideas subscriber had just purchased a subscription and was having a difficult time accessing the online content in the subscriber site.

Rather than conduct himself in a professional manner, he resorted to an approach, which reminded me of my pre-teen daughter when she doesn’t get her way.  It was this same type of behavior I wrote about in this article about rude people.

As part of his email (and accompanying voicemail) rant, he let us know…

“You may not think that $29.95 is enough money to get upset about, but I assure you that to me, it is.  When I spend money I expect QUALITY and am not tolerant of anything less. I can see that I made a BIG MISTAKE and I want to CANCEL any and ALL SUBSCRIPTIONS with your company!!!”

Mind you this was literally within minutes of subscribing online.  The first thing I did was check his account and everything appeared OK.  This meant it was a customer-specific issue and since both the email and voicemail had just come in, I decided to pick up the phone and call him myself.

When he answered, I let him know who I was and why I was personally returning his call.  I remained calm and pointed out to him the tone of his email and voicemail were not called for, given the circumstances.

I then proceeded to spend 15 minutes helping him, with the final determination that the problem was a computer-specific problem.  Fortunately he was able to access the site from another computer within seconds (wonder why he did not try that path before emailing and calling us).

After pointing out there was something on his computer preventing him from accessing the site, he still remained indignant, at which time we both agreed this was not a good fit for either of us.  We immediately refunded his money and canceled his subscription.  We also did him the favor of removing him from our email list.

So with all due respect to Harry Selfridge, I want to propose a tweak to his famous saying by adding my own twist…

The customer is not always right and not every customer is right for your business.

For some, this may feel a bit strange.  It goes against our marketing DNA… to not want to try to help every potential customer with our services and products.

The more customers, the better – right?

The fact is you and your business are designed to work with a specific market and a certain type of person.  It’s definitely not everybody and unfortunately in this day and age, some people are just bad for your business.  They are impossible to deal with.  And you neither you, nor I, need them as customers.

This doesn’t mean you don’t adhere to the highest level of service and product offering possible.  It just means it’s OK to not allow everybody to be a customer and “firing a customer” once in awhile is part of maintaining a healthy business.

All of this reminds me of this infamous story from Southwest Airlines and its CEO, Herb Kelleher.

There was a woman who frequently flew on Southwest, who was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.

She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.

After receiving her most recent letter, the customer relations person decided to bump it up to Kelleher’s desk with this note, “This one’s yours.”

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote this note back (I’ve taken the liberty of re-creating the note to bring it to life)

 

What are your thoughts about the customer always being right, and have you ever had to fire a customer?

About Mike Capuzzi

Mike is a publisher, Amazon # best-selling author, and coach for business owners, entrepreneurs and corporate leaders looking to stand out from the competition by authoring, publishing and leveraging short, helpful books. He is the author of 19 books, including two Amazon #1 Best Sellers. Learn more about his publishing opportunities at BiteSizedBooks.com.

32 Comments

  1. Andrew D. Cohn on January 22, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Mike:
    Some people are never satisfied, no matter how good the product and service you provide them. Southwest provides a consistent product better than almost all in that space.

    I have a question on your read on this one.

    I purchased a $150 product from one of my favorite companies. It was missing a piece worth less than $1 that I could not get elsewhere. It would take $.50 to ship.

    Here was their response: “Unfortunately, we do not have a way of just sending the missing part. We can offer you an exchange though?”

    Curious to see how you would recommend dealing with that company.

    Thank you.

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 9:55 am

      Andrew – regarding your specific situation, you need to determine if its indeed feasible/possible for the company to replace the single part or if they are just putting you off because its a hassle. I can see both situations being reality. If in fact the individual part cannot be replaced, then the only solution is an exchange, which seems to be quite reasonable in this scenario. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Steve Leibson on January 22, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Are you ever right, Mike. Here’s a simple proof that the customer isn’t always right. How many times have we all heard from a customer: “I want it for free.”

    Is that request ever right? Sure, sometimes if we’re talking about a bundled purchase. Is it ever wrong? Sure, lots of times. So the customer isn’t right in some of these cases and therefore, the customer isn’t always right.

    I also agree with you that some customers are not worth having. In consulting, I’ve had customers who consistently hire me and then methodically ignore my advice. They want the results that I can get but they want instant magic when results take time. For example, you can’t have 10,000 page reads on a blog you start today (unless you write about some major celebrity having a costume malfunction, with photos, which is hardly going to be relevant in most B2B spaces). Customers can have unrealistic expectations and if they refuse to live in a real world, then they’re not going to be good customers. Let them find a supplier that lives more in their world and good luck to them!

    Thanks for a great post, Mike.

  3. Mark Fothergill on January 22, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Great article Mike.
    We deal with very picky individuals and a lot of returns because of it. I have “fired” a few customers in our 20 plus years in business, but going forward I think it will be a bit more frequent. There are just some people that are generally unhappy in life, and they carry that over even to their hobbies like collecting model cars.
    I will be a paid subscriber shortly.
    Have a good one!
    Mark Fothergill
    President
    Replicarz Inc.

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 10:27 am

      Mark – thanks for the note and I checked out your web site (http://www.replicarz.com/) – very cool! When I was younger, I collected Matchbox cars and still have hundreds of them in the attic.

  4. Cathy Chapman on January 22, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Some people are simply very angry. They think that being a victim is the best place to be. They take little responsibility for their actions. Those are the ones I work with as a therapist and it can be very difficult.

    In my “non-therapists” business, I thank them for their interest and, if it can’t be resolved quickly, I agree with them that we are not a good fit and bless them on their way.

  5. Joanne on January 22, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Mike, I loved this article. We have run into the same issue at times. Instead of just emailing us and saying “I want a refund”, which we would promptly give, we have had people filing a dispute with their credit card company.

    I agree with you, this is not the customer we want. We always refund and take them off our list.

    Then we get a wonderful email from a customer praising us. I try to let the bad stuff go and focus on these comments.

    Thanks for the article…nice to know we are not the only ones dealing with this!

  6. Jeffrey Arrowood on January 22, 2013 at 10:29 am

    I do believe that not every customer is right for my company. I get some customers who never purchase what I actually have in stock, but always request special orders. Special orders are a burden for my very small company, as most of my suppliers require a bulk order and I am never sure that the item ordered for one customer will sell to the broader market. I have had to politely ask those customers to find their special order items elsewhere. Most of them were very understanding.

    Another example – my business is a Catholic educational business. I sell Catholic books & media on the side. Though I do have my inventory up on Amazon, I cannot cater to the typical Amazon customer who wants the item really cheap, really fast, with free shipping. I’m a one-man operation, and my margin for resale items is just too low. I am also not in the parish service niche, which means getting bulk items for parishes at cut-rate prices. I don’t have the bulk purchasing power for that. So these kinds of customers are not a fit for my company. If I tried to cater to them, I’d run myself out of business.

    However, Catholics who are highly motivated to learn purchase from me because of the added educational value I provide. They value the guidance and additional education that I offer, and they trust my recommendations when they are looking for Catholic books & media that teach what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. They don’t mind paying a little more than they would on Amazon, and the timing of their delivery is part of the rhythm of their education with me.

    Yes, we need to be listening to our customers to deliver what they want rather than what we think they should have, but the final business decisions have to be ours and in the end we have to attract the customers who will resonate with who we are as a business.

  7. Edwin Soler on January 22, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Hello Mike. I sort have the same dilema with a customer. I say sort of because I have not had to fire him per se but I offered what I think is a reasonable offer to his unreasonable demands. He ordered a book which took over 4 weeks to find. He was very patient and we stayed in touch through the entire process. It turned out that the book was out of print and no where to be found. I miracoulosuly found a copy and even gave him a free book cover for his waiting time. I sent him a follow up message regarding the urchase to make sure everything was OK and I get this email from him:

    Got the book today, thank you, but I got a couple of problems with it. The two pages before the preface are not indexed and you can’t see the Gen tab, also the black index tab for Num is off centered and you can’t see the J and part of the o on Jos on the tab. I hate to be picky, but that bugs me, and like I said, it’s a gift for my daughter and I don’t want her to have any problems using her bible. If you could get me another sticker to place over and above the other one I guess I could do that and then I’ll try to carefully cut out the index on the two pages. If not, then I want to exchange it. Thank you.

    I replied to this email indicating that what he had in his hand while it was the slightest cosmetics that he had a problem with (we are talking about tabs that are fractions of a centimeter off) he had an out of print book that was simply impossible to replace. I did not go into how he also got the book with free shipping and a free cover because I did not want t oirritate him more.

  8. Dominic on January 22, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Great article Mike. Not much to say other than not all customers are right for your business and the sooner someone realizes this, the more fun their business and marketing will be!

  9. Edwin Soler on January 22, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Sorry Mike, continuation of my last comment. He did not seem happy at all with the book and requested a new one. That was fine with me, except the next book costs substantially more and I was already barely breaking even if at all with the first purchase. I emailed him politely requesting the first book to be sent back to me and I even allowed him to keep the free cover so he did not feel like he was getting “ripped off” although that was not the case. I also mentioned that he would at least have to pay the difference and still get free shipping on the next book. I have not heard from him since. It saddens me that he could not see the value of what he had in his hands because of what bothered him. Some people are simply impossible to please Mike. From what your situation sounds like, this customer already had “an ax to grind” and was just looking for any excuse to take it out on someone. Too bad for him, he is the one missing out. In the end, what matters is that we are honest with our selves and even held accountable if neccessary to make sure we are giving our best. In the end thats all you can do, the rest is up the customers.

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 11:50 am

      Edwin – the best way to address this type of issue and it’s quite easy to forget to do, is to always “set expectations” before you go to this level of service. Had you outlined all the potential gotchas with your customized service for this out-of-print book and let him know what may happen, he would no room to wiggle. Not to say he would not try, because that happens to, but at least you have a paper trail of your promises, etc.

  10. Ray Walker on January 22, 2013 at 11:37 am

    The customer is always right….just not always right for you. One great advantage of running your own business is you can choose your customers. Some customers are just never satisfied and will take up a dis-proportionate amount of your time, best to ditch them and use the time to find more of the type you enjoy working with. This may not be ‘politically correct’ these days….but it is in my business!
    Ray

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 11:50 am

      Ray – I hear ya. Still would debate the “always right” stance, but you are spot on!

  11. Sunita Pandit on January 22, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Hey Mike,
    Happy cold weather! But allow me to warm your heart for confirming what I am experiencing in our business… I manage my husband’s cardiology practice and I am on edge with our version of the unhappy customer! I am ready to post the ‘Patient Bill of Rights!’ 1: You have the right to show up on time for your appointment. 2: You have the right to pay your Doctor for services rendered. 3: you have the right to take your prescribed medications as instructed. 4: ou have the right to remember what medications you are taking and for what reason and which Doctor prescribed it – we provide you a lovely cheat sheet for it! …
    Need I say more? People grumble about the high cost of healthcare… When will they accept that they are the responsible party not the Doctor… They are guides for them!….
    OK I will stop now… Take a deep breath!
    Have a Heart Healthy Day!
    Sunita Pandit

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 11:52 am

      Sunita, thank you. It is 17 degrees here today 🙂 I love the idea of “customer bill of rights.” Maybe I need to create one for my business. Thanks for the note!

  12. jeff martin on January 22, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Mike, just the other day I had to call a customers Bluff.We installed a cctv system in her business, cost $5800.00. The camera image is very good yet she complained constantly that she couldn’t recognize the peoples faces.We refocused one time, repositioned another, reset her computar a couple of times and the email threats kept coming back that if I don’t fix it to her satisfaction she wanted her money back.Last wed. she was waiting for me to exit a weekly meeting she new I attended.I had enough, When she started to complain I stopped her. I said we have two choices I will write you a check right now and have the system removed today. The second choice is to stop the threats act like a business person and I will see if I can do anything to improve the visibility.
    She stopped in her tracks and said she wanted the system and not to take it out. She has also sent me a very nice email that she was happy that we were able to have the impromptu meeting. Ha Ha she was waiting to ambush.

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 11:56 am

      Jeff – that is classic and is a type of response I have seen before. It’s the reason I picked up the phone and called this gentleman I wrote about. It is a shame certain people have to be reminded of how to act and how to respond and how to accept their own responsibility for certain issues. Obviously there’s no room for unprofessional behavior, but calling a customer to the carpet like you did, is well within a business owner’s rights.

  13. Verena on January 22, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    We Took 3 years to Establish our practice, at the beginning I thought I have to see everyone which soon I learned the hard way was wrong. Truely you have here and there the odd case, I see in complaints a teaching for us carefully establishing all inputs from both sides.If we have one we then analyze the true cause, mainly it is personal problem, but not always.
    Main key to success for us is selection. We might not be right for everyone so not everyone is right for us, that is liberating.Now I look on a fantastic patient base, they love us and we them and that is the most wonderful fulfillment we highly appreciate.

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      Verena – excellent points and liberation indeed! Marketing has as much to do with repelling people who should not be customers as it is about attracting the right customer.

  14. Andrew Mazer on January 22, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    I have taken much joy from time to time in my career to throw a customer out. It can be quite satisfying.

    In large part, being a jerk and a perpetually unsatisfied customer is a learned behavior. I can be forgiving of such people AND their behavior. I just don’t have to deal with it.

    One more thing-when you have a great employee who has been abused by a customer or client, throwing the jerk out of your business has a multiple reward.

  15. Edwin Soler on January 22, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks for that tip Mike. I will certainly use it.

  16. Jim Edholm on January 22, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    I started to read the other comments before posting mine, Mike, but I decided I’m too much the politician and would only try to mirror the opinions of others, so I’m just going to jump in and give you my thoughts: You’re dead on.

    But of course, as a fellow Kennedy devotee, you knew I’d say that. But I’ve had first-hand experience with that. One client who texted me on Xmas Eve Eve (i.e. Dec 23) at 10:30 at night while I was out having dinner with my son and his then fiancee, now wife asking about a health insurance company problem his son was having.

    I texted back – within like 20 seconds of getting the text – that I would jump on it first thing in the morning morning but that I’d be working on it long distance because I was in Chicago visiting family.

    20 second after that I got a text saying, “I want service, not a travelog.” He’s no longer a client, although I’d be lying if I told you that I had the brass ones necessary to fire him on the spot (I DID tell him that I would work on it but that after calling it in I was going to enjoy my Xmas and give not one single thought to him and his son until I returned — that may have affected his decision to go elsewhere.

    Point is, he was a large client (one of the top ten out of 300), and while I miss the money, I don’t miss him one bit. In fact, a burden was lifted from our operations.

    To me there has to be a personality fit both between me and the client and between my service person assigned that account and the client. It just isn’t worth working with people that don’t have a world view similar to mine and my people’s.

    Jim

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 7:39 pm

      Jim – thanks for the note and insights!

  17. Phillip G. Sinclair, CPA on January 22, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Great article, Mike. I have taken several courses regarding managing my business and have learned to classify clients into A, B, C and D clients. You keep the A and B clients, if you can turn the C clients into B clients, do so. Fire the rest of the C and all of the D clients. It’s the old 80/20 rule. the A and B clients will take 20% of your time and yield you 80% profit. The C and D clients will take up 80% of your time and yield you 20% profit, if any profit at all. Unfortunately, I try to please everyone, and have weeded out only a small portion of my C and D clients… But I am working on it.

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 7:40 pm

      Phillip – good for you for making this effort! I hear you and improvement is always there for all of us!

  18. victor on January 22, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    Here is a email I am sending to all my clients tomorrow, it was on this subject.

    Hi Fred

    Enjoy your Australia day celebrations Mate . But please take care

    Over the last couple of years I have seen a trend where a business jumps 10 steps for their customer immediately, not asking
    Critical questions or having 100% correct information.

    In these situations the company asked to do the work orders parts immediately as the customer is screaming for task to be done immediately.
    So not to upset them and get the job finished immediately they think what they might need and order the parts, without a thorough inspection.

    They tell their client that they can do the job in a couple of days and it will be $3000 but on inspection they find that there are more parts needed and it’ a week ‘s worth of work.
    What’s happened they now have to tell the client that it’s twice the price , longer than inspected and they have upset the supplier by making them change their plans.
    At this point who is happy?

    So by telling the client they need to wait until you have all the answers , you help everybody and minimize your stress level.

    This also keeps your supplier happy and less agreements at the end with your customer.

    By putting yourself first can make a lot of sense, save you money and can make your life easier.

    Next time Think before you Jump, it can save you.

    Brookes Quote.

    Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new
    Einstein

    Warmest Regards
    Victor Little
    Deps P/L
    http://www.deps.com.au
    Phone: 03 5941 2600
    Fax: 03 59414148
    Email sales@deps.com.au
    Committed to your Success.

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 22, 2013 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks for sharing Victor!

  19. mont on January 22, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    Of course, customers can be wrong for a multitude of reasons. However, I try to keep in my mind that they are right–it helps me to try and really see their situation without reacting improperly. But, it soon becomes obvious we are not meant for each other. I strongly subscribe to the thought that if at the first, you have a hard time even trying to see their point of view, it will only get worse if you keep up the relationship. It’s best for both if I quickly and politely tell them it doesn’t seem like my services meet their needs. I try very hard not to say exactly what I am thinking of them out loud–you never know when it might come back to haunt you and your business.

  20. Brian T. Edmondson on January 25, 2013 at 12:43 am

    Mike,

    I truly believe that the customer is always right. But the fun part is that we get to decide who are customers are and who our customers aren’t 🙂

    Brian

    • Mike Capuzzi on January 25, 2013 at 7:56 am

      Brian – amen!

  21. Jim on February 2, 2013 at 8:23 am

    I have been in business for 45 years. When your on the front line and deal with people every day you run into all
    types. You are almost a therapist for their problems.Many times they are not right. The only problem for you is they have the money in their pocket. If you can’t switch pockets
    just move on to another prospect. Don’t waste your time trying to prove anything.Some people enjoy the position of power, they can control you with the promise of giving you business. They are doing the fishing, turn it around and you do the fishing for better prospects.

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