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OPEN for Discussion: Is the Customer Always Right?

Business owners and experts discuss whether this classic business creed is actually true, and reveal what to do to help satisfy unhappy customers.
December 11, 2017

No matter what kind of business you're in, you're doing business with other humans. Humans have good days, bad days and all sorts of days in between—so how do you go about providing the best possible customer service across every kind of day and every possible situation?

One thing's for certain: If you're a business owner who has to be right all the time, you could be missing out on some serious opportunities for improving your brand. I sat down with Ruth Carter, attorney with Venjuris; Shaun Muldoon, CEO of Muldoon's Coffee; and Ari Levy, M.D., founder and CEO of SHIFT and former CEO of Engaged Health Solutions to get their thoughts on whether the customer is always right and how you can take control of a customer service situation gone awry.

What's the first thing you think when you hear the phrase, "The customer is always right"?

Ruth Carter: I think this statement can be true in the right context. For example, if you own a coffee shop and a customer complains that you got their order wrong, you make them a new one at no charge. But if they walk in and ask for something you simply can't deliver, that's another issue.

I run into situations like this all the time as a lawyer. I'm only licensed to practice law in Arizona and my practice focuses on a limited range of legal issues. I get lots of calls and emails from people who are either outside of my state or asking for help that is outside my scope of practice. In those cases, I have to tell these people I can't give them the type of help they are looking for. I also regularly encounter people who want me to work for free or give them a discount, and that's not something I generally do either.

The biggest mistake is not validating a frustrated customer's feelings. You may not be able to give them exactly what they want, but you can at least be understanding and empathetic.

—Ruth Carter, attorney, Venjuris

Shaun Muldoon: It's true in every scenario of our customer service program. This may be because Muldoon's mainly deals with a corporate client, so the relationship is mostly professional. We have grown to a team of 60, so over the years we have had some staff who would rather be right—or "righteous," as we call it—than take care of the customer. Needless to say, they aren't on the Muldoon's bus anymore.

Ari Levy: In a services-based business, the customer is almost always right. Sometimes, though, they don't know what they're asking for. It's your responsibility to figure out exactly what it is they want.

How does your customer service philosophy differ now from when you first started your business?

Carter: I've become more firm about telling people “no." In the past, I'd be more likely to offer a discount or let people take advantage of my time when they should be paying me for a consultation.

I adopted a practice about a year ago of not answering my phone if I didn't recognize the number. My outgoing message on my voicemail asks callers to send me an email rather than leave a message. It's much easier to respond to an email with, “Would you like to schedule a consultation? My consultation rate is $XXX," than to try to interject this on the phone when someone is pouring out his legal challenges to me in the heat of the moment.

Muldoon: Our customer service philosophy hasn't really changed since we started the company in the late '80s. Customer service was simple when it was just my brother Jimmy and me, as we both would die for a customer. The challenge came and continues as you add new employees. We explain and coach our team to protect the group with great service. If someone makes a mistake, that makes us vulnerable—as a company, as a team and especially as a company with a future.

Levy: Well, one of the things we learned from when we first started [Engaged Health Solutions] is that education and shared understanding is crucially important. We may feel like we know the answer as experts. That doesn't matter unless we can convey that vision and perception with our client. We should align on the why behind what we're doing and execute the how in the best manner for both the client and us. That's often pretty tricky, because it will depend on the client's demeanor, like in situations where clients want to micromanage.

What's the biggest mistake you see business owners making when dealing with frustrated customers, especially when approaching service from the ideology that the customer is always right?

Carter: The biggest mistake is not validating a frustrated customer's feelings. You may not be able to give them exactly what they want, but you can at least be understanding and empathetic. Whenever possible, you want to make the situation right or at least better, and sometimes the only thing you can do is express that you understand where the person is coming from so they know their frustrations have been heard.

Muldoon: Taking too long to react. Even if you give a great response, an overly delayed reaction evaporates goodwill. This can happen often to fast-growing companies, as there's so much going on. Once we see the wheels coming off our wagon, we regroup and focus on the basics. We have halted our growth many times over the years to make sure the service promised is delivered. It's amazing how you can turn a problem into an example of great service, but beware that it's a double-edged sword. A slow or tardy response will get you the pointy bit.

Levy: Bringing their own frustrations and anger—their emotional baggage—back into a situation. It's like bringing a hand grenade into an already delicate situation.

Can you share an experience where a situation made you reconsider the question, "Is the customer always right?"

Carter: I've never been in the situation as a lawyer when I've had to eat crow, but working with clients has made me much more diligent about making sure expectations—and contracts—are clear from the beginning. I have definitely had clients whom I won't work with again because it was too frustrating to work with them the first time.

Muldoon: From time to time we drop the ball. Actually, we call it a "splat," meaning we're juggling too many eggs. In an instance where the customer reports poor service, we immediately send in one of our key team members to apologize, no matter whose fault it is. We call it a "save" when we're fortunate enough to salvage a lost account. The first step is telling the customer we really appreciate the opportunity to rectify the issue, and we will do whatever it takes to make them happy.

If done properly, we see irritation turn to relief. We call this "watching the armor fall off." Nothing gets more respect inside the Muldoon's management team than a save—not even a new account. It's also a great message to send your competition.

If a business owner feels trampled or taken advantage of by their customers, what advice would you give them for righting the ship and taking control back without being over-controlling and unfriendly?

Carter: Be clear about expectations and firm with your boundaries. I often find that people take advantage of you when you let them. When you are respectful, courteous and firm about what you will and won't do, people generally respect it. And if they don't, I'd seriously question whether they are worth having as customers anymore.

Muldoon: Well, if you are over-controlling or unfriendly you won't have that customer for long. I think business owners should love what they do, and if they feel bothered by customers with concerns, maybe they aren't the ones who should be dealing directly with your customers. We all have trouble customers, but we use the difficult ones to hone our skills.

Levy: The key element here is knowing how to have a courageous conversation and recognize the emotions behind what's happening. Then you can decide what the most effective way is to communicate the challenge by stating as much as you can in fact, peeling away the opinion. The goal is to achieve a shared common vision. Ultimately, that's the biggest factor. Can you guys align? Not only on where you're at, but on where you're going—so when there is disagreement, it's about understanding perspectives? Often, people just want to be heard and understood moreso than anything else.

How would you sum up your customer service philosophy in one sentence?

Carter: It's all about integrity—say what you do, do what you say and when you make a mistake, apologize and fix it to the best of your ability.

Muldoon: Respect the customer, as it's not about who's right; it's about what's best for your company and the customer together.

Levy: The customer is always right, except when they're wrong—and then, it's our fault.

A version of this article was originally published on February 12, 2015.

Read more articles on customer service.

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