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Are Customers Always Right…Even When They’re Wrong?

February 13, 2013

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We’ve all heard the story about the business owner who posted a sign that reads: 

  1. The customer is always right. 
  2. If the customer is wrong, see Point 1.  

This mission statement is honorable and acts under the assumption that each customer is reasonable. But what happens when the customer is wrong and unreasonable?I was returning from a business trip and waiting for my flight in the Cincinnati Airport. Thirty minutes before our scheduled departure, an airline attendant announced that the flight would be delayed for at least an hour due to weather problems in another state. The inevitable groans from waiting passengers turned to astonished stares as a businessman stormed up to the counter and proceeded to scream at the attendant.  He demanded a flight to his destination. The attendant apologized and patiently informed him that there were no other flights available until well after his scheduled flight was due to arrive. His loud tirade continued with, “I’m a frequent flyer. I want you to get me on another flight immediately or give me a voucher for a free ticket.”  If this gentleman was indeed a frequent traveler, he should certainly understand that an airline is at the mercy of weather conditions. There was nothing this attendant could do to get him on another flight. But especially if he is a frequent flyer, it is important to acknowledge his frustration and give him something of value to keep him coming back. The attendant handled it beautifully. She quietly said, “I know you are anxious to get home after your exhausting trip. Let me arrange for you to relax in our VIP lounge where you can have complimentary beverages and Internet service.”  A few minutes later, an airport cart driver picked up the passenger and whisked him off to the VIP lounge. The customer was smiling as though he were royalty.  Now, you may ask yourself, “Was that fair to the other customers?” No, not really. After all, this man received special attention while the rest of us were still sitting in the general boarding area, patiently awaiting the arrival of our plane. But only a few people seated next to the counter had overheard the conversation. Instead of frustration, the other passengers were relieved that peace and quiet had been restored. Most were commenting on how well the flight attendant had maintained a calm and friendly manner.  Many executives and employees believe that most customers lie or make ridiculous demands in order to rip off the company. The reality is that only 2 to 3 percent of customers fall into this category. Yet, many organizations implement policies as a means of protection from their dishonest customers. Unfortunately, their policies often punish the 97 to 98 percent of customers who have legitimate complaints and requests.  What is the best way to deal with a customer who acts childish and irrational? Well, you may not like my answer, but you must treat your customers as if they’re always right. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges for customer service professionals. It’s very difficult for you to identify those customers who actually want to take advantage of your company. Customers who complain strongly usually feel cheated or victimized. They also feel that their situation is the most important one in the world.  Here are five steps for dealing with irrational customers:

  1. Try to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Ask yourself, “If this were me, what would I want?”
  2. Remain calm and exercise patience. Getting into an argument will only increase your stress and escalate your customers’ anger. 
  3. Trust your customers, even if you don’t agree with their point of view.
  4. Recognize that all customers are not equal. A long-time, valued customer who has spent large sums of money with your organization may require a higher level of compensation for service recovery than a brand new or intermittent customer.
  5. Give your customers something of value that will keep them coming back. The higher the perceived value, the more impact it will have. 

For example, I recently stayed at a Marriott Hotel. Due to a processing error at the front desk, I did not receive my Marriott Rewards points or credits for my stay. Two weeks later, I notified the general manager. He was out so his assistant made sure I received credit for my stay and added 5,000 bonus reward points as an apology for my inconvenience. What was the cost to the Marriott? Nothing. What did the hotel receive in return for its recovery efforts? I’m telling you about it and I’ve just booked a reservation at another Marriott.Are customers always right? Absolutely not! But they are the reason we are in business and in order to stay in business, we must treat them as if they are.

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