Saturday, 22 October 2016

Is the customer always right?

It’s a question we’re often asked. Are customers always right?

No, they’re not but I understand what people are trying to say. They’re trying to say that customers should always be treated with respect and that’s something that’s obviously true. Or is it?

The key word is “always”. Yes, of course customers should be treated with respect but only up to a point. There comes a point when you have to take action and be a little less respectful.

A few years ago we were approached by a friend who ran a restaurant. He wanted to know if he’d done the right thing with a difficult customer.

This customer had arrived at his restaurant with a friend one weekend morning and they ordered coffee and cake. Shortly afterwards she called the owner over and told him that she didn’t like the taste of the cake. Ignoring the fact that she had eaten almost all of it before deciding it wasn’t to her taste he apologized profusely and told her she didn’t have to pay for it. In fact, she didn’t have to pay for her coffee either. She seemed happy and went away.

The following weekend she was back and guess what? Exactly the same thing happened again. Having consumed almost all of a different cake she made exactly the same complaint. Although he was beginning to get a little angry he did the same thing again, apologized and reduced her bill to say sorry. She went away happy again.

The next weekend the same thing happened yet again but this time he was more assertive. His patience had worn thin and he politely told her that as his cakes clearly weren’t to her taste maybe she should think of eating elsewhere in future. For the third and final time he cancelled her bill and wished her farewell.

She came back the following weekend. This time he refused to serve her. He reminded her of the previous occasions when she had complained and he’d suggested she should select a different restaurant in future. She was stunned. Only when he made it clear to her that she wasn’t going to be served at his restaurant again did she understand. She’d been banned. Eventually she left, muttering and promising to wreak vengeance upon the restaurant and its owner for the rudeness she’d experienced.

She was a very good example of an utterly unreasonable customer. The restaurant owner was the reasonable one in this situation. She was costing him money and taking up a table that could have been used by a customer who was less disruptive.

More recently I met the owner of a filling station who was also struggling to manage a particular customer. This customer had arrived at his filling station and one of this team had made an admittedly serious mistake. He put the wrong fuel in the car.

Luckily he realized what he’d done before the car drove off. A mechanic was called and the car was taken way to be completely drained and the tank cleaned. The filling station then filled the tank with the correct fuel and the owner wasn’t asked to pay. So far so good. Yes, a serious mistake had been made but the team had done their best to put the situation right again.

But this wasn’t nearly good enough for this particular customer. He now wants compensation although he hasn’t quite explained what exactly he needs compensating for. Yes, he was inconvenienced but his car is back to normal and showing no ill-effect. Maybe he’s spent time in the USA where it is common practice to sue people for emotional distress every time the wind changes direction.

I also heard of a customer who a company described as “the worst customer in the world”. He was repeatedly abusive to their staff, shouting and swearing at them for the slightest perceived offence. In fact, he was so obnoxious they offered to pay for him to close his account and open one with their competitors. Sadly for them, he declined their generous offer and they’re still stuck with him.

An often overlooked aspect of customer service is that there are at least two parties to a purchase. The buyer and the seller and both of them have a role to play, both of them in particular have a legal and moral obligation to behave reasonably. As consumers we can’t expect miracles from stores but we are entitled to what the Consumer Protection Regulations describe as commodities and services that are of “merchantable quality” and that are offered “with reasonable car and skill”.

But it goes both ways. As consumers we have to behave reasonably as well. Luckily most of us do behave ourselves but that doesn’t mean we all do. I’ve lost count of the number of times when consumers have come to us with a complaint about the way they’ve been treated by a company only to later establish that they're either exaggerating or sometimes just plain lying. Sometimes they’re actively trying to con the company.

So no, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the consumer is NOT always right. Certainly all consumers deserve to be treated with respect but only up to the point when they stop deserving it.

And no, the customer isn’t a king either. It’s not just kings that deserve respect, it’s everyone. The average Joe deserves the same level of treatment as anyone else.

And one final free tip. Consumer like you and I can, to some extent, determine the quality of the service we get with our behavior. Go into a store looking grumpy and difficult and that’s likely to be the sort of service you’ll get. Go in cheerful and smiling and you know what? That’s likely to be what you get in return. Which would you prefer?

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