Oh, that old saw, "the customer is always right". Knowing when to stay or fold.
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Knowing when the customer isn’t right for your business is difficult to talk about let alone pursue a course of action. This is true in this day and age where we have any number of firms competing for every advertising peso they can wrap their arms around.
There are any number of reasons why so many in the Marketing Communications field struggle with this old saw. "The customer is always right".
I guess a sequence of events over the past year has motivated me to sit down and and dial up a quick Google search. It revealed that the term was originally coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London in 1909, and is typically used by businesses to:
1) Convince customers that they will get good service at this company
2) Convince employees to give customers good service
"In a nutshell, different parts of the brain process information differently. When patients without a connection between the brain halves (some people are born with this condition and it’s a treatment for others with rare neurological maladies) are asked questions, if one side of the brain didn’t know the answer and couldn’t communicate with the other side, it would make one up. ". - Steve Kiisel, contributor to Forbes
I thought we had seen the end of this thinking until it reared its ugly head with a client.
Here's my take on why “The customer is always right” is wrong.
1. In most service-based businesses, the concept is that because the client is forking over their dough, they get what they want.
2. Business owners are very often not their own target audience. And friends and family of business owners aren’t either.
3. If customers don’t know the answer, they make it up: I found this hard to believe until I read a article by Ty Kiisel, a contributor to Forbes – according to Steven Pinker and some pretty interesting research he outlines in his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, if we don’t know the answer, we make it up.
Understanding this provides each of us as professionals some consolation knowing that the client is not always right. But what happens when they are frequently wrong or worse, they don’t have a clue what they want or why they want it. This is where we come in as a professionals – which is why they hired you to begin with.
If you aren’t pushing back on nearly everything that comes out of your client’s mouth, you’re doing it wrong.
Now, I’m not saying you should be an asshole and make the client feel like an seething pile of dog poo. You shouldn’t. But when you get hired to do something like design, development, writing, or art, it’s typically because you know your what you're doing and are very good at what you do.
It's clear that customer expectations are not always rational: In fairness, sometimes we as an industy allow, and even facilitate unrealistic expectations with our customers. Things like spinning the real story about a product or service to make it sound sexier than it really is sets up the situation for an unhappy camper down the road. Which equates to a loss of client and worse, part of your income.
For example, when someone comes to me to solve a new production introduction it’s because they need help. And they don’t need help just “developing a pretty face.” They may say that initially, but if they think that’s all there is to it, then it’s even more clear they need to be guided towards the process. It’s our job to educate them. It’s our job to teach them why their suggestion isn’t such a great idea. You’re an expert in your space and they hired you for that. Don’t just sit back and take whatever awful suggestion that gets spewed out because you’re afraid you’ll offend them. Consciously or sub-conciously, they are looking for guidance from you because they weren’t able to pull it off themselves.
Push back is part of the process. It’s about refining and forming. It makes a better end-product 100% of the time. The success of their business depends on the quality of your work, and you owe it to the client to make sure they get the absolute best.
I’ve had to sit across the desk or on the other end of the phone with a customer who had unrealistic expectations. It’s never easy and there are even those who have made it a matter of course to complain knowing that most of us will eventually cave and give them an additional discount or something free to placate them.
Those companies that look beyond what their customers say or what they ask for and spend the time to discover what they really need seem to be the businesses that really succeed.
Is the customer always right? Nope. Does that mean we don’t have to work like crazy to keep our customers happy? Yup. There's a difference and you'll all know when the time is right to fold or stay.