When a stranger first meets me, say on the plane or at the grocery store, they’ll often get a mischievous look in their eyes when I tell them what I do for a living. (I’m a customer service consultant; this means I’m brought in by companies to improve their customer service standards and delivery. I also serve as a keynote speaker and trainer within this discipline.)
And suddenly, they’ll spring a question on me that they seem to have been saving up for just this occasion:
“Is it true that the customer’s always right?”
When I hear this, I always take the bait. And give them the best answer I can:
“No, the customer’s not always right. But you want to make them feel like they are.”
What do I mean by this? A couple things.
• There is rarely value in correcting a customer when they’re wrong. In fact, this is, usually, exactly the wrong thing to do, especially if they’re mad as a hornet at the moment. Instead, stick religiously to your customer service resolution method. (You have one, right? If not, here’s an article on my MAMA system for calming and turning around an upset customer.) And if you don’t yet have a customer service recovery system in place, remember this: you should always start with listening, rather than rebuttal.
• If you do need to correct a customer, don’t lead with your correction. Remember: They do believe that they are actually right, albeit from their own perspective. So start by showing an understanding of where the customer is coming from, and only after that, if needed, you can, like a good cop in a thousand TV shows, have them “walk me through that one more time.” If your customer is truly are in the wrong, let them slowly come around to that reality. Youdon’t gain points by aggressively pointing it out.
There are exceptions
There are, however, exceptions: times where you will need to let a customer know they are wrong, firmly and without hesitation.
• Safety and security. If failure to correct a customer’s actions or beliefs (for example, “it’s okay to move my chair in front of the emergency exit” or “it won’t matter if I prop open the gate on the swimming pool”) has safety or security implications, then by all means don’t let them keep going on in their dangerous ignorance, just for the sake of politeness.
• Overservice of alcohol. I wish this were obviously an exception, but apparently it needs to be said.
• Complex contracts. Particularly in B2B contexts, contracts and their scopes can go far beyond what “letting the customer be right” can address, except as follows: If you keep that goal of “letting the customer be right” foremost in your attitude when a request (or demand!) is made of you by someone at the other end of the contract, you’re more likely to get them where they need to be–and where you can afford to be taken.
• K-12 education, higher education, and academics and academia in general. I professionally offer customer service consulting and training in educational contexts, including for K-12 school systems, and here, the word “customer” doesn’t always tell the whole story. While I do believe that treating parents and prospective parents as customers is pretty much spot-on, students are young people whom the school system needs to ultimately turn into responsible scholars and members of society.
So being permissive with a student in the way we strive to be with customers isn’t exactly the right model. I would say that students deserve both the courtesy that customer service implies and the benefit of being told (in an appropriate manner) when they are misguided or flat-out wrong.
• Healthcare (the patient experience): I also work as a patient experience consultant, helping hospitals and healthcare systems improve how they serve their patients and increase patient satisfaction. In my view, healthcare providers aren’t exactly customer service providers, although there is a lot of value in learning to provide excellent customer service/an exceptional patient experience from models such as hospitality. Likewise, patients aren’t exactly customers. Patients deserve gracious service, but they also deserve your “no’s,” your “you’re not quite right on that” when to fail to be candid with a patient could affect their future health.