Business Basics

Why the customer is not always right

- November 29, 2016 3 MIN READ

Ask anyone and they will have likely heard the term “the customer is always right.” This term originated in 1909 from Harry Selfridges who founded Selfridges department stores in London. The intention behind it was to ensure the customer always received good customer service. However, it seems that people have literally taken this idea and run to end of the earth with it. We all seem to be confusing good customer service with automatically entitling customers to be right in every situation without question.

It’s important to point out that we whole heartedly believe in good customer service. However, we want to shake up this concept and change the way that customers and businesses interact – for the greater good of all. We believe that relationships between businesses and customers are at their best when there is mutual respect, understanding and cooperation from all sides.

Here are some tips to ensuring you get the balance right and continue to deliver good customer service:

#1. Build relationships with your employees on a foundation of trust and respect

Richard Branson once said “if you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers.” This is unbelievably true. We cannot express how important it is for businesses and leaders to build strong relationships with your employees on a foundation of trust and respect. If your employees are engaged, motivated and feel empowered and valued in their jobs, they will want to go the extra mile for your customers.

It’s also critical that employees feel supported in times when they unintentionally make mistakes or customers complain. We are all human. Build an environment where your employees understand that it’s okay to sometimes make legitimate mistakes, that they can be honest with you about it and be empowered and supported to follow through with the best resolution. Foster a learning environment where your teams learn from their failures and contribute to improving the way you work with customers.

Similarly, ensure your managers and leaders model the expectations in their interactions with employees and customers alike. It’s one thing to have a customer service charter or a code of conduct and another to ensure that is implemented in practice. There’s no point saying one thing and doing another – it’s completely counterproductive.

#2. Be clear with your customers about the way you work together

Where possible, have clear policies in place about the way your business operates and the way you work with customers. Communicate this at the beginning of the relationship to ensure everyone is comfortable and happy to proceed on this basis.

There are many elements this may include, such as terms and conditions of business, how you resolve customer complaints and expectations more generally regarding how you work together (for example, what the customer is responsible for versus what you’re responsible for, what happens if they don’t provide you with the information you need to do your job or if they don’t follow your advice, etc). You can also communicate more broadly about what “good customer service” means in your business via a charter or customer service values so your customers can ensure this aligns with their expectations.

Lastly, be clear with your customers about what result or benefit you will be delivering to them in exchange for their hard-earned cash.

#3. Focus on the resolution of problems

“The customer is always right” term does not automatically entitle customers to make unreasonable demands or act inappropriately. It’s not only important to be proactive with good customer service, but to also focus on coming to a fair resolution when problems arise. Online reviews from customers are the “online word of mouth” and becoming more common and relied upon as technology shrinks the world. Do not underestimate the cost and impact of negative reviews on your brand. Customers are more likely to view your brand favourably if you focus on resolving issues promptly and fairly.

This includes acknowledging and validating their concerns and taking all aspects of the issue into account when deciding on the most appropriate course of action. If you have made a mistake, take responsibility for it. Explain to the customer why you believe your resolution is the best way forward for everyone involved and what you are now going to do differently to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again.

Paul McCarthy once said “not all dollars are created equal.” In other words, not all customers are the ideal customers for you. Sometimes you need to think about whether continuing with a transaction or a relationship with a particular customer is in everyone’s best interests. There may be times when the fair resolution is to give a customer a refund and move on. Regardless, everyone is entitled to a safe workplace. Business owners are never expected to put themselves or their employees at risk of actual or potential harm at any time, including while dealing with customers.

In business we learn through doing and this includes failing. Do your best with the information and resources before you and learn from your experiences to adapt the way you work if necessary. It’s time to shift the focus from being “wrong” or “right” and instead think about how we can foster and grow relationships between business, customers and employees.

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