When American retail magnate Harry Selfridge came up with the famous line “the customer is always right” in 1909, he was probably doing so in order to encourage a dismantling of the customer service approach that predominated at that time. Afterall, it was the era in which “let the customer beware” was a more commonplace refrain for businesspeople. Today, in a world conquered by the laisez faire market principles that crown customers kings of the market, Selfridge’s words run off the lips of people with great frequency. It’s widely agreed that customers have the power to make or break even huge corporations; they only need to switch allegiance to competing firms, in order to sink a product or service provider they don’t like. While they rarely conspire to wreck businesses by shifting demand to substitutes, they indirectly do so every day- which explains why many companies fail. Consumers vote with their cash, and an overwhelmingly negative vote from them could cost enterprises their very existence.
But it’s also true that the customer is not always right. They’re humans, just like everyone else (goodness, aren’t we all customers?) with their wise criticisms and sentiment-driven dislikes. You’ve probably had to deal with customers who made you so angry you literally freaked out or slumped in your seat- because you knew they were so wrong. Like the man who asked you over the phone to deliver Okra soup to him, and then complained bitterly about the fact that you brought him Okra soup,”instead of the Egusi he wanted.”
There can be severe consequences for businesses that follow this mantra. Here, we’ll look at four reasons why it doesn’t have as much mileage as many people think.
- Customers aren’t necessarily the experts
Customers‘ opinions about your company and the products and services it offers are very important. You’ll be ignoring them at your own peril. But let’s face it: they’re usually not experts at the sort of thing you’re doing (i.e. your line of business), so their suggestions about how you should run things or tweak your organization’s policies won’t always be right. You shouldn’t reduce the price of your Tee shirts simply because a few customers have said it should be lower. If it looks like something you can afford to do without endangering your boutique business, you could go ahead with it. But don’t do it merely because you want to please your customer- they probably have no idea what costs you took into consideration before fixing your price, and they’ll likely do same if they were in your shoes.
- It could discourage employees from working optimally
Sometimes, there’s an unsaid part to “the customer is always right”. It’s “the employee has no say”. This isn’t good for business. If you’re constantly bashing your employees for not yielding to what customers demand- even when the customers are wrong -you risk demoralizing and alienating them. They may not be disagreeing with clients because they’re hard-headed and uncouth (admittedly, some workers are); it could even be that they’re refusing to give in to unreasonable demands from other people because they don’t think the interest of the company will be best served by accepting such demands. There’s always a time to side with your employees in disagreeing with customers.
This is an appeal to the human element in work dynamics. Try to avoid giving employees the impression that their views will never be taken seriously when they clash with ideas put forth by customers. Treating them like insignificant afterthoughts could turn them into the most effective campaigners against your own cause.
- Customer service could suffer as a result
This might seem counterintuitive. How could accepting advice from your customers possibly damage customer service? But it can (and has, in many cases).
Actually, it’s not really the advice you get from them that could be a problem. Yes, there might be dangerous consequences for swallowing every suggestion given by customers (more on that shortly). But it’s the employee’s response to your repeatedly siding with customers, in spite of how wrong they are, that could spell doom for your customer service culture. If your workers are the ones meeting with your clients on a daily basis, they’re likely to let loose their frustration with your “customer is always right” principle on clients. This is how the cookie crumbles for many businesses- employees get triggered by company policy that dismisses them in favour of even the most problematic customer’s idea-rants, and employees respond (not always consciously) by treating customers with hostility. A recipe for enterprise implosion.
- It could put your company in trouble
Because customers aren’t the experts (see point one), their advice isn’t always right. In fact, you could run your company into the ground if you keep taking every single thing they say seriously. As we have already pointed out, the proper thing to do would be to vet any suggestion you get from them and take the ones that come across as good enough. By all means, build a customer-centric enterprise. But don’t take in a trojan horse from good-intentioned patronizers who don’t know as much about your business as you do.
This is not a push back against being conscious about customer’s needs. It’s simply intended to remind us that the wellbeing of your business is important. Do everything you can to keep your customers, but don’t kill your dreams in the process.