Either Marshall Field or Harry Gordon Selfridge may have first said, “The customer is always right.” The phrase is associated with the two men’s department stores, the former of which opened in the United States in the late 19th century, and the latter of which was established in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century.
If you work in any type of business that requires you to interact with customers regularly, such as retail, you know this just plain isn’t true. While you always want to try your hardest to satisfy and treat your customers with respect, sometimes they’re just wrong.
Whether or not the request is reasonable and within the purview of the services you offer, if the customer is acting rudely, such as yelling at staff, using expletives or calling employees names, that behavior is simply unacceptable. This is a situation when the customer is behaving inappropriately and disrespectfully — and it’s not okay.
Once, I was on a packed train, and the conductor asked passengers to move their bags off the seats next to them to accommodate all the passengers. One passenger refused to move her bag when he came around and politely reminded her to do so. The argument escalated, and the passenger called the conductor an “a**.” She was escorted off the train and told she would be unable to ride with the service in the future.
Similar to #1, if the customer is creating an unnecessarily stressful situation for an employee, she’s not in the right. For instance, in the above example, the passenger was creating a stressful situation for the employees by not following the rules, which were in place for a reason. She could have easily put her bags on the ground but chose not to. Because she was creating a disruptive situation, assuming she was in the right essentially suggests that she was more important than the employee — which is a neither fair nor accurate observation to make.
If the customer comes to the staff with a complaint, even if it’s a valid one, and she’s not listening to your response, she’s causing the situation to escalate. For example, if she informs a website administrator that she can’t access her account, and the administrator offers troubleshooting ideas, she should try them. If she claims that she doesn’t have the time or automatically believes they won’t work before trying them, she’s behaving poorly.
People are busy. And people have needs. That’s certainly true of many customers, but it’s also true of many workers. A customer who, say, becomes overly impatient during the lunch rush when there are several customers ahead of her and demands to be served immediately is being unreasonable. If she’s annoyed about the long wait for a table at a popular restaurant, she has the option to go elsewhere. She should not be afforded the option of skipping the line or asking for special attention.
And then there’s the most obvious one: Sometimes, the customer is just plain wrong. Perhaps she put the incorrect date and time for an event in her calendar. Maybe she wrote down her login information incorrectly. Or she could just be unaware of your polices, prices or other information.
It’s important to acknowledge that the customer can be wrong. This is essential for making employees feel like they have agency. To blindly assume that the customer is correct equips her with undeserved power. While you want to keep your customers happy, it’s also important to keep your employees feeling valued and heard.
It can be difficult and annoying to deal with an abrasive or “wrong” customer, but you need to start by fully listening to — and actually hearing — the complaint. This will not only improve relations with the customer but also allow you to develop a potential solution. After all, you can’t fix anything if you haven’t heard the customer fully.
To show you’re paying attention and want to help, it can be useful to repeat the problem back to the customer to make sure you’re on the same page. Ask questions, too.
Even if you don’t fully agree with the customer or don’t think the issue merits this kind of reaction, you still need to show that you care about fixing the problem. You can do so by listening, as per #1, as well as proposing potential solutions. Chances are, you can do something to make her feel valued, even if it’s patiently walking her through the process of setting up an account or what have you for what feels like the umpteenth time.
If the customer is wrong, it may be in your best interest to politely tell her so but in a way that doesn’t make her feel like she’s wrong. For example, if she misread your procedures, you might say, “Yes, we do things a little differently here. It’s a bit of an unusual system, but…”
If a customer is just rude, it’s better for your business and employees to make her leave. For instance, in the train example, there was no dealing with an extremely abrasive passenger, so she was required to get off the train. Sure, she probably told her friends later, but even if those friends vowed to never use the service again (which is unlikely), the other passengers took note and knew not to repeat the behavior. Moreover, they appreciated how professionally the staff handled the situation and showed that they were able to determine when enough was enough.
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