One of the most quoted untruths in business is this: “The customer is always right.” However, when the customer is not right, there is still a right way to handle the situation. This is my take:
The customer is NOT always right!
But, they are always the customer. So if they are wrong, let them be wrong with dignity and respect.
Customers may be misinformed or make a mistake – and that's OK. But there are other times that the customer is way beyond being “not right,” and that is when they are disrespectful or abusive to employees who are doing their best to be helpful.
I decided to address this topic after hearing the same story three times in one week. The story has been around for years, and the short version goes like this: A Southwest Airlines passenger wrote several letters to the airline to voice her unhappiness with many aspects her traveling experience. Her complaints ranged from the boarding process to the lack of assigned seats, small bag of peanuts instead of a meal, and more. After several letters, one of them made its way to Herb Kelleher, CEO of the airline. He took the time to respond. He wrote:
We're going to miss you. Love Herb
This simple message did two things. It sent a clear message to the customer: We appreciate you, but it's not working out. In addition, it sent a message to the employees: We value the work that you do, even enough to put you ahead of the customer.
Some customers are not worth doing business with!
Can you guess what the response is when I use that line in speaking engagements? It's almost always applause. I explain that it's OK to “fire” certain customers. Employees should not have to deal with abusive, disrespectful customers on an ongoing basis. It brings down morale, puts employees in a bad mood (not good for the next customer), and generally sucks out the positive energy that you are trying to build into your culture.
If your company culture promotes the customer is always right concept, accepting anything up to the point of actual abuse from customers, you are putting your employees in a bad situation. You are giving customers the freedom to bully your employees, and making employees uncomfortable. They lose confidence, dignity and self-respect and be unsure about how to react. Ultimately, the employee may lose respect for the manager and even the company, and you may lose a good employee.
The customer is not always right. Some customers are not worth doing business with, and that's OK. Toxic customers may be bad for your company's health and may merit a polite parting of the ways.