Is the Customer Really Always Right?

June 7, 2011

It feels momentarily better to tell off the people who drive you mad, but it otherwise doesn't do much good

Many tales have come my way from a couple of relatives who spent about 15 years running their own business. Most of them are of the “can you beat that?” variety, but a few useful lessons are sprinkled in here and there.

Details regarding the business are largely not worth going into, but suffice it to say that they were providing a useful service to their customers, who would typically make regular use of the business for a few years at a time. These customers ran the gamut of backgrounds, personality types, and behavior patterns. Some paid on time, others were routinely delinquent. Some showed up for appointments, others were chronically late. Some were pleasant, even-tempered, and polite, while others were…well, “less-than.”

Still, a customer was a customer, and the couple running the business wasn’t looking for reasons to turn anyone away. Sometimes there was no real choice; for instance, a deadbeat who never pays a bill eventually needs to be cut off. Far more common were those customers who, while worth keeping, were not the couple’s favorites.

One day, a particularly troublesome customer, perpetually on the brink of being “cut loose” from the business for his bad behavior, finally reached a point where he no longer needed the services they provided. The couple which had put up with him for the past few years was not at all sorry to see him going. The husband of the couple, in particular, was practically rubbing his hands together at the prospect, and mentioned to his wife that, now that there was nothing to lose, he was going to give the departing nightmare-customer a piece of his mind. The wife sympathized, but told the husband he couldn’t.

They argued about the issue for some time. She had all of the pragmatic factors on her side: What if the customer, against all odds, needed more services in the future and might otherwise come back? What if the customer knew a hundred other potential customers who might or might not come to the business, based on his word-of-mouth? What if the customer, down the line, found work in some sort of regulatory agency, and thus gained the ability to make trouble for the business? Harsh words now, no matter how satisfying, could cause endless grief later.

The husband’s ultimate argument (more of a plea, really) was, “But we’ve been taking so much abuse from this guy for so long, biting our tongues and choking down our pride! Isn’t there any point at which we’re allowed to be human and react?”

The wife’s response: “Sorry, no.” Not as long as your livelihood depends on people voluntarily coming to you. Not unless you’re willing to jeopardize your future success for a momentary unburdening of your soul to a rotten individual you won’t ever see again, 99.9% of the time. If the remaining 0.1% returns to darken your door, that fleeting sensation of I sure told him a thing or two will be long gone, and of little or no comfort.

It’s hard to remember that in the heat of the moment-but sometimes, that’s the price of doing business.