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Sometimes the Customer Isn’t Right

You’ve probably seen this sign hanging up in a shop or office:

Rule 1: The customer is always right.

Rule 2: If the customer is wrong, see Rule 1.

This is not always right.

I’ve had a lot of jobs

I’ve been out of school and in the working world for thirteen years. That’s not a very long time, but I think it’s long enough to have come to some conclusions. I’ve been in the web design consulting industry for six of those years, and observed at least five distinct project management styles. I haven’t worked on a single large project during which the customer was always right. I wouldn’t expect them to be. They don’t design websites for a living, they’re just trying to run their business as best they can. They came to a professional for help because they acknowledge that they’re not experts at everything, but sometimes they forget.

A real world example

I imagine this is true for any kind of consulting: web design, accounting, interior decorating, etc. Unfortunately, it can lead to significant tension. Let’s say you’re with a group of architects, builders and designers, who are working to open a new office building for Awesome Ice Cream, Inc. It’s a big project with a host of details to be worked out. Your group is especially excited, because they’ll be able to put it in their portfolio of work. It’s a household name, and really, who doesn’t like ice cream?

Somewhere in the planning stages, one of the Awesome Ice Cream stakeholders thinks it would be neat if all of the office doors opened out, toward the hallways, instead of in toward the office. You know, because you’ve been paying attention to this sort of thing, that office doors always open in toward the office (in America, anyway). The doors that open outward tend to be closets and bathrooms. The customer wants to have “Open Door Day” on the 15th of every month for all the officers of the company to make time to hear any complaints, and wants to make it extra obvious that the doors are open.

This is a noble sentiment, but it is going to be wrong on all the other days of the month, or 96.6% of the time. People who work there would probably adapt to the weird doors at work, but visiting businesspeople would always be totally thrown off. It’d be like going to a hotel where the doors opened out onto the hallway. You’d think there was something wrong with the hotel.

Defend your experience

The thing to do now is to educate the customer, without being insulting, of course. Explain that an outward-opening door has to be either completely closed or completely open if it’s not going to impede traffic in the hallway, and when it’s completely open you lose the ability to display artwork on the wall, or have an obvious location for the fire alarm. It would also provide one fewer place for the officer to hang his/her coat if the door was swung all the way out into the hall.

At this point one of two things will happen: they’ll either see your reasoning and agree, or stomp their feet and eventually get their way. When the latter happens, I’m afraid I have no subsequent advice, but I’m hoping our readers might add some in the comments. Because in my experience, when consultants treat customers as if they’re always right, and customer makes a wrong decision, that means the general public will see the mistake, it’ll cost extra to fix it later, and nobody will want to put that project in their portfolio.

On the flip side, if you find yourself hiring a consultant, and they suggest something which seems wrong to you, ask them to back up their decision. If they can, please consider that you might be wrong, and remember that you hired experts for a good reason.

Does your industry or company behave as if the customer is always right? What do you do when they’re wrong?

Photo by St0rmz

Published or updated July 26, 2010.

About the author

Smithee formerly lived primarily on credit cards and the good will of his friends. He is a newbie to personal finance but quickly learning from his past mistakes. You can follow him on Twitter, where his user name is @SmitheeConsumer. View all articles by .

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

Interesting example about the doors; I had no idea why doors open the way do before. In general when I’m dealing with a customer who is “wrong” I take the same approach you mentioned. I don’t think wrong necessarily means wrong so much as it does missing some information.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

As an architect, I totally agree with this article–customers come to us for our expertise, but there are many times where we have to step in and show them that their wants or needs won’t work due to code issues, practicality, etc. The best architects minimize this by being creative with their designs, but it still happens day to day.

Great example about the doors. As an aside, it’s not only a “standard” in that they would look weird swinging out, but most of the time it’s also a fire code issue (out-swinging doors prevent free-flowing exiting from a building during a fire). In cases like this, when the client is really insistent, there’s not much we can do unless we change the design (for example, putting the doors in small alcoves). There have been times where things get so bad that the client (or we) walk away from the project. Pretty crazy stuff. :)

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avatar 3 Anonymous

The customer isn’t always right. As a business owner I have gotten rid of customers based upon the pain factor they cause us. Meaning yes there are legit reason for a customer to complain and yes we do screw up. I’m referring to the customers that are nasty for no reason are usually not worth keeping (at least in high volume/low cost businesses). It can also be a different opinion on how you manage the relationship. They especially get fired when they are not worth the income that comes in from them. If I’m directly loosing money from the client AND a pain they are not worth keeping. Even if future projects you stand to make money off of them. They are usually difficult to work with. Cut your losses and move on.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

The customer can’t ALWAYS be right, especially as regards things we don’t understand and have hired professionals to do for us. It’s up to the service provider to find tactful ways to tell us so. (Also to provide Tums for the poor bastards who answer the phones, because they tend to take the bulk of the customers’ ire.)

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avatar 5 Anonymous

The phrase “the customer is always right” is just a marketing phrase or slogan meant to make customers feel special and not something to be taken literally. No the customer is not always right in a literal sense. My business does not behave as if the customer is always right. If we did, then we’d make no money and our products could be unsafe, illegal or unreliable.

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avatar 6 tigernicole86

I work in customer service. We have some pretty demanding customers who make rather insane demands. For instance, we took on a customer whose program changes every year and they have only recently decided to have the current year and the previous year’s items mix and match. Well had only just recently taken them on in the past 9 months and a lady wanted to return a skirt that she had purchased from their other provider from 3 years ago. She wanted a replacement because the hem had only just come out. She called me everything but a white girl and when I explained that we were the new vendor and had never had any of that year’s pieces, she didn’t believe me and hounded her company to get her money back.

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avatar 7 Donna Freedman

There are horror stories, I know. (My daughter works in customer service.) But the majority of customers don’t make unreasonable demands — as Jim noted, satisfying everyone’s quirks would close down a lot of businesses.
For example, the company for which my daughter works has a high-up-the-chain person look at the most unreasonable complaints. Invariably such people say they’re going to walk, and never give the company another dime of business. And you know what? Sometimes the high muckety-muck will politely write something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry that we cannot agree on a compromise. Your case is clearly a violation of our terms of service. We are always sorry to lose a customer, but perhaps it’s for the best in this case.”
I wonder how many people actually DO walk?
And some customers you don’t want anyway.

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