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October 22, 2007


Lewis Green

So true. It's not only about business; it's about the right business.

Shama Hyder

Very true Daniel! Being selective is smart business indeed!


I DO believe the customer is always right. I worked for many years in customer service. And I know how hard it can be to deal with demanding customers. And sadly, I have lost a few, and have had to learn from those experiences. So I do know it is not always easy. But even when it is most difficult, there is incredible value and beauty in re-grouping and trying to learn more from that phrase, as we examine what went wrong and how we can handle things better the next time.

I was trained by my mother--many years before I was old enough to work--that the customer is always right. And I agree with her to this day.

As a result, and I am not intending to be boastful here, this philosophy has made me a PRO at dealing with supposedly "difficult" customers. Sincerely. It isn't to my credit, but to the credit of whoever invented and passed down the phrase, and most of all to my mother, who explained to me what it means.

Whenever I start a new job, or interview where customer service might be part of my job or department, I always let the employer know I LOVE "difficult" customers, and to please feel free to send the most difficult ones to me, because of the customer service abilities and confidence the phrase has taught me.

I enjoy what I learn from the opportunity, and the good feelings that come from being challenged to be my most compassionate and caring.

You see, my mother, who was born in 1920, and had what today might be considered an "old fashioned" education in manners and human relationships--and view on the world--explained to me that people often do not understand what is meant by that phrase. Businesspeople take it either too literally (or perhaps not literally enough.)

Think about what "the customer is always right" really means. How and why did this idea really come about? Especially the "ALWAYS right" part.

It doesn't just mean that we should TREAT the customer as if s/he is always right, but that we should begin by genuinely BELIEVING that s/he is always right, and perhaps to then work backward to understand the source of the person's legitimate concern, not verbally, which would put the customer on the spot--making them feel questioned or doubted, which isn't sensitive, tactful, or respectful, and wouldn't be appreciated!--but silently, thinking or imagining to ourselves what those concerns or needs might be. A few clarifying questions might help, but the point is to not embarass the person or make them feel doubted. The objective is to communicate clearly and unequivocally that you believe them and understand them. It is amazing what wonders that instantly does for the interaction.

If it is true or valid that the customer is always right, what is happening when the customer appears to NOT be right?

It means we are not fully understanding or hearing the customer.

To be perfectly honest, it means that we are taking an intentionally ostrich approach (sorry!) to what that person is saying. Typically, it means we not looking for the deeper meaning and feelings behind the customer's concerns. This doesn't require being a therapist. It just challenges us to (silently) be a more deeply compassionate person. A tactful person.

None of us are perfect at being able to communicate our needs 100% of the time. That is true of customers, just as it is true of ourselves at times.

If a customer appears to not be right, it can mean that the customer is having a bad day, a bad decade (prolonged grief from a deep personal loss or wound), or deep emotional challenges -- a hard life. (Not that we should say such a thing--that would be deeply disrespectful, unkind, and tactless, and gratuitous wounding of another. The world doesn't need any more of that.) Or it can mean that we are not really providing the best service, but don't realize it, and don't really want to look at it as closely as we might.

Regardless of either the more direct, or deeper, origins of the customer's frustrations, if one understands how to imagine oneself in their shoes, it doesn't take much time to have her or him feeling better and winning a very loyal and grateful customer.

The upset customer is our most powerful teacher, not just of widget sales, but of being human and caring. Of treating someone as a whole person.

The power and beauty of the phrase, "The customer is always right" is that if it is always true, and we begin with the assumption and firm belief that it *is* always true, it forces us to listen better to the customer and to search for what the customer's genuine concerns or needs are, and to provide for those. And that is usually related to compassion, kindness, and imagining ourselves in the customer's shoes - whether it is about the widget, or about having a hard life factored in. It doesn't mean delving into the customer's personal problems out loud. It just means handling the situation with great respect, sensitivity, caring, and compassion.

After all, we live in a culture where people are less and less willing to listen to one another in times of grief. It seems everyone wants us to "move on" and "get over" losses and hardships, or go to a therapist. So in reality, there are plenty of wounded people in the world getting buffeted around in a colder, ever less caring and less customer-service oriented society. A moment of truly listening and being compassionate may be all the customer needs to come around.

I have worked with truly beligerent and even violent people, and by simply acknowledging the validity of their feelings, whatever those feelings may be, been able to turn the situation around.

A recent example was a few years ago at a peace protest (not a business setting, but it's an extreme example), with a violent intruder shouting at us that he wanted to "kill em all" (referring to Iraqis.) By simply telling him over and over again that I could understand how he felt that way, because of the atrocity and sickness of 9/11, (even though it was not Iraqis who had committed the crime), and telling him how angry and hurt I too was over 9/11, this man, within a few minutes, was in tears, crying in my arms as I rocked him, saying he didn't want to hurt anyone, that he knew no Iraqis were involved, and that our country was now attacking innocent people. I didn't point out that I had disagreed with most of the violent things he had been advocating moments earlier, just acknowledging the underlying sentiments he hadn't been saying, that were at the root of his violent declarations. The other peace protestors had been arguing with this man before I'd stepped in, which was getting them nowhere. He needed his anger and pain heard and understood, and only when he got that, over and over, could he move out of those feelings to compassion and concern for those now under seige in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he actually didn't believe in violence, war, and killing anyone. He simply needed his anger and pain heard. The other peace protestors thought I was crazy, supporting this man's anger, but that is what he needed to move to a different place, emotionally, and as a result, intellectually. The whole process took only perhaps 10 - 20 minutes.

The customer's response to what we say is the most accurate barometer of how respectful and understanding we are being.

Often times, it is a person who simply needs to feel understood, to have us imagine the situation from their perspective, and if we take a few moments to REALLY do that, and to genuinely see as valid WHATEVER their concerns are, 100%, and then make a business decision that flows out of really understanding the customer's concerns, demonstrating that we "got it," the person will feel better. If the person is still upset or disatisfied, it is an indicator that we have not yet done that: have not yet understood and "gotten it."

It only takes a few moments--to perhaps a few minutes--to listen deeply, to begin by believing the customer, and to understand or perhaps imagine the deeper meaning behind the customer's concerns, and to take their side. All we have to do is take their side with the part we agree with, and remain silent about anything we might question or disagree with. If we communicate this clearly and emphatically and often enough, and follow it up with appropriate actions, the person will begin to feel better, and may even begin to see some of our side, too. Or not. It doesn't matter. We are there to please the customer, not the other way around! And most if not all of this costs nothing. And we have everything to gain from it, in terms of customer loyalty and friendship.

If we are arguing with or dismissing the customer (such as by giving "explanations"--which are really just justifications or rationalizations for the way we are doing business, and should never be given), the conversation will take more of our time, because the customer will remain feeling unheard and upset.

And never EVER say, "I'm sorry you FEEL that way." EVER!

Nothing is more rude and will rightfully alienate a customer faster than to say you are sorry for the person's FEELINGS.

The only way to use the word "sorry" is to say, "I'm sorry," or "I'm very sorry. Thank you for telling me," etc.

Never suggest that you are just sorry for how the person FEELS. That is the height of arrogance, rudeness, and dismissal.

Only say you are sorry in the context that you are apologizing and accepting responsibility for your or a coworker's actions.

(And yes, it is perfectly appropriate to apologize and take responsibility, as a representative of the organization, for a co-worker's hurtful actions to a customer.)

If a conversation is getting nowhere and the person is still upset, it means the listener (the businessperson) is not really listening. They may think they are, but they are not, or not enough. They are resisting understanding or accepting what the customer has to say, often because it may be difficult to hear what the person's dissatifaction with our business is.

My mother told me that the moment a businessperson takes the perspective that "the customer is NOT always right," the businessperson fails to learn from the wisdom of the phrase "the customer IS always right."

That person will never develop the customer service skills this phrase provides us with the opportunity to learn and grow from.

My mother said that as soon as an organization preaches the philosophy that the customer is not always right, that is the beginning of the end for that company. And time and again, I have seen that to be the case.

I have worked in a number of businesses, typically "hippie" or liberal workplaces, whose owners or managers said "the customer is not always right." But I see this attitude increasingly in conservative businesses with greedy, money-money attitudes, as well.

And I have found that almost invariably, they are not very nice businesses to work for. I have also had customers, time and again, at those businesses, quietly tell me I'm the only person in the company who is nice and not rude, and that the company is lucky to have me.

Believe me, if you adopt the "not always right" philosophy, your customers will talk behind your back about your manners and attitude--to more compassionate people in your company, if there are any, or to your competitors.

Adopt that philosophy, and you may feel smug for awhile, but may find yourself out of business sooner than you imagined.

It is easy to take the attitude that the customer is not always right. But it deepens us, makes us better salespeople, and better PEOPLE, when we learn the lessons that "the customer is always right" has to teach us.

As one gets effective at compassionate customer service, the whole process of satisfying supposedly difficult customers will sometimes take less time than it takes to read what I've written.

Try it, and see if you uncover for yourself what I mean.



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