While conducting a meeting with front-line managers at a small business, I said, “The customer is not always right.” One of the leaders of the company disagreed with me. I asked him if a customer ever asked for products or services that wouldn’t help them, anything unethical or illegal, or demanded work not in the contract, therefore, not paid for. He said yes. The customer is not always right.
The idea that the customer is always right is accredited to several early 20th-century retail leaders. It was a time when customers often weren’t treated with respect and dignity. The philosophy of the day was more buyer beware than customer care.
This customer service philosophy was never meant to be taken literally. It wasn’t about letting customers get whatever they wanted, no matter what. Rather, it allowed employees to listen to their customers with empathy at a time when consumer protections were virtually nonexistent.
You’re working with a customer. You’ve done your homework, and you understand what they hope to achieve. You’ve asked a hundred open-ended questions, and you know what they need. Then, when you’re ready to get the ball rolling, they tell you they want something else. You know that “something else” is a mistake. It won’t meet their needs; it’s not cost-effective, practical, or may create customer service issues. The customer is wrong. How do you tell them?
The Customer is NOT Always Right
How to Tell a Customer They’re Wrong
The customer isn’t always right, but should always be treated with respect. The customer may ask you to do something outside of your expertise. If you can’t do it, tell them no. A customer could ask you to do something unethical or illegal. Tell them no.
One time, I stopped taking a medication my physician had prescribed because of something I’d read online. When I told my doctor, they informed me that although the study I’d read had merit, the positives of the medication far outweighed the chance for adverse reactions for a man my age. I was misinformed. My doctor told me no. I still take the medication.
I work with several retail organizations. Occasionally a customer becomes abusive. When a customer uses inappropriate language or threatening actions, leadership should step in and tell that customer no. One organization I work with bans such customers from their store.
- Don’t make it personal. Never attack. Instead of using personal pronouns, talk about the plan. Discuss the project, not the person. Remain objective.
- Use your experience to teach them. State the facts, give evidence, and share insights. Lead them to the best choice.
- Offer alternatives. Fine-tune their idea to make it work or include their thoughts in the initiative.
- Blame misunderstanding on your miscommunication and use the opportunity to re-communicate what will best serve their needs.
- Make it their idea. After explaining what they need and why seek input. If their input is positive and they’re receptive, establish a buy-in by agreeing with them.
- Be direct, not blunt or combative. Rather than dwell on why the plan isn’t their best choice, talk about how the proposed project fits their needs.
Telling your customer they’re wrong isn’t easy. I mean, ultimately, they pay the bills, don’t they? However, the alternative may cause more difficulties. Allowing a customer to make the wrong choice, which leads to an ineffective solution or worse, creates more problems than it solves and exposes you for precisely what you are—a salesperson more concerned about the sale than the customer. Advising your customer on the best fit for their needs will establish you as a customer-centric consultant and form the basis for a long-term relationship.
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