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The Customer is (NOT) Always Right – The Customer Service Conundrum

Is your customer service attitude a dinosaur?

Popularized many years ago by those in the business of selling, the phrase “The customer is always right” continues to be a mantra for well-meaning businesses in myriad industries. It sounds good; after all, the premise is based on the desire to provide great customer service that will see the customer happy, to ensure they are satisfied with their business transaction with us, so that they will want to return for more and encourage friends to deal with us when they need what we provide. We, as customers ourselves, want it to be true when we are engaging someone to fulfill our particular needs or desires. There is a sense of correctness about the concept; after all, a customer would of course always be acting in their own best interests – right? It is easy to love the idea! There is just one small problem.

It isn’t true.

The fallacy of the ‘always right’ line is not a revelation for anyone that has spent much time on the providing end of a supplier-customer relationship – even including (I admit) some of our friends in Sales. To continue walking down the path of honesty though, we need to state that it is not a revelation to those on the consuming end either: we all know that as customers, sometimes, we only think we know what we want, and do not always know what we need. In spite of this, the majority of us continue to play the game, bemoaning the times when a customer wish is detrimental, yet quickly assuming the opposite stance when we are on the other side of the counter.

This is not exclusive to any particular version of service provision – most any provider in most any industry is able to cite examples. Every phase of customer interaction from carefully legalistic contract language through to the painfully obvious warning labels we put on products provides evidence that we recognize that the customer is not always right. As service providers and consultants, it is a truth that we all acknowledge when gathered for happy hour, but are otherwise carefully programmed not to voice. I won’t call it an ‘elephant in the room’ – but only because it is more of a Brachiosaurus

Dinosaurs are Dangerous

I compared “the customer is always right” with a really big dinosaur for multiple reasons, the first of which obviously was to show that it is, as an item everyone sees but no one wants to talk about, orders of magnitude larger than the average elephant. Another is to emphasize the antiquated nature of the statement – it’s a bit of a living fossil. The main reason though is to let me apply analogy using dinosaurs, which is always cool.

The current, long-standing state of “the customer is always right” can be compared to the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park series. They are a business proposition, created to entice money-wielding customers to happily hand over their incomes for the opportunity to interact with them. We (providers) recognize they are dangerous, as evidenced by the precautions taken to contain them (cages, enclosures, barriers, etc.), since even the smallest can be deadly. That containment always proves to be tenuous, and its failure leads to consequences ranging from scary to fatal, despite any defensive measures, as once loose the dinosaurs quickly prove why we should not seek to interact with them no matter how safe conditions are promised to be.

In the same way, “the customer is always right” is a business proposition intended to set the customer in the right frame of mind (here we are at Jurassic Park, having fun). We (providers) recognize that there is danger involved, and have attempted to contain the possible negative effects in various ways – service level agreements, project plans, contracts, etc. (cages, enclosures, barriers, etc.). Those ways often prove inadequate (“Yes, I saw the Do Not Feed sign, but it was so cute!”), and allow the “always right” teeth, claws, poisons, etc. to escape and wreak havoc among your attempts at service, in spite of subsequent feeble (We only did what you wanted!) and not-so-feeble defensive maneuvers.

So why does this happen? For one outstanding, baffling, seemingly unavoidable (but totally avoidable) reason: we don’t say NO when the customer says something like “Is it okay if I exit the vehicle for just a second so I can take the Tyrannosaur’s picture without the bars in the way?”, because that ever-present programming is whispering “the customer is always right” directly to our brain, and we hear our voice say “Well, just for a second”, even as our rational side is screaming at us not to be an idiot.

It is all too common for service providers – by choice or by convincing ourselves we have no choice – to repeatedly attempt to contort reality in ways that stretch (or outright violate) the laws of physics in order to meet a customer demand or expectation that we know is not in their best interests. The major issue with this is of course that reality is not actually being altered – just how we allow the customer to perceive it – which means that eventually the mirrors will shatter and the smoke will dissipate and the naked truth of this modern day embodiment of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” will be visible to all. When that occurs, rest assured the first question that will typically arise from your customer will be “Why did you let that happen?”

Customers (when the shoe is on our other foot that is) take note: you are just as responsible for any havoc caused if a rational provider does in fact tell you something like “No, you can’t pet the baby raptor, it will take your fingers off”, but you insist and so have to give up your piano lessons. Oh – and when that happens, we as customers need to admit it was our own choice that supplemented the raptor’s lunch!

Respect the Dino

Dangerous creatures deserve our respect – we ignore this at our peril. Having established that “always right” can become a Jurassic nightmare, which was of course the setup for suggesting an alternative way to handle the concept, let’s consider another take on interacting with dinosaurs…

Dinotopia is less known than Jurassic Park (I blame Marketing), but the world created by author and illustrator James Gurney is just the contrast appropriate for this topic. It features humans living with sentient dinosaurs, working together in a symbiotic relationship. Sure, there are still issues – but there is also mutual respect, a harmony in which there is beauty and balance. Now as dinosaur stories go, that likely sounds much less exciting – but when the choice is between controlled and stable or desperate, repeated attempts to avoid being dino-kibble, I’ll take controlled every time.

And that is the point – there is no reason why both provider and customer cannot choose to have a working relationship in which the provider is not leery of saying “we don’t believe that is in your best interests” and in which the customer is receptive to hearing the ‘why’ behind that, and what they should consider instead.

How do you enable this? Well first, ensure everyone knows not to confuse doing what is right for the customer with doing what the customer thinks is right — they are not and never were the same. This is not a “provider only” task – to make this feasible and sustainable, both provider and customer must accept that “always right” needs to stay off limits. Is it something that requires a bit more work? Of course – but the best relationships usually do, and it’s worth it.

Of course no system is perfect, so I am not promising you Service-topia – dinos are wily and people sometimes can’t help not thinking things through, so even in a safe environment there will be attempts to breach containment – but with the right conditions and ground rules, you can minimize the number of escapes.

“The customer is always right” is a dinosaur that is not going to become extinct in any foreseeable future. We each need to respect that, and do all we can to live with it safely.

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