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The Customer Is (Not) Always Right

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“The customer is always right,” a phrase coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridge’s department store in London, is typically used by businesses to convince customers that they will find good service at this company and to motivate employees to give customers good service.
I wish that I could say I agree with Mr. Selfridge’s proud statement above. The truth is I don’t. I believe the customer is not always right, but they are always the customer. If you want to grow and retain their business, you must run your business with that principle concept in mind.
Is it right for your customer to…

  • Not pay an invoice on time?
  • Change the scope of a project and expect you to still meet the already tight deadline?
  • Scream and yell at your staff for seemingly no reason at all?
  • Accuse you of doing things incorrectly even though there is a sign-off and/or email thread indicating otherwise?

See what I mean? The customer is not always right, but yes, they are always the customer.
How do you deal with those customers who have problems so that you can retain their business? Here are a few of the methods that work for me:

  • Be patient. Don’t allow yourself to become defensive or irate. When there is an ongoing problem or disagreement, schedule time to sit together and discuss the situation. (In-person, face-to-face is harder these days but always better.) Rather than cast blame on each other, direct the conversation toward a solution or middle ground where both parties will be satisfied.
  • Be aware that you can win the battle but still lose the war. Assess the problem carefully before drawing your line in the sand and giving any ultimatums to the customer. You may declare something prematurely that will lose you the account.
  • Apologize even if you think that you didn’t do anything wrong. I know this is a difficult one for some people – it certainly was for me! – but I’ve learned that making an apology shows I’m simply taking ownership and caring enough to make the situation better. “I’m so sorry that happened to you” can go a long way for soothing a customer’s anger and moving in the direction of better, more effective communication.

We’ve been in business for a long time and have had our fair share of problematic customer situations. Despite some inevitable bumps in the road, I find that by taking the actions above, we have retained many of our clients and developed better working relationships.  How about you?
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