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Blog : “The customer is always right”…right?


“The customer is always right”…right?

Jodi Goldman discusses how sometimes saying no is just as important as saying yes to clients.

Almost anyone who’s ever done a day’s work will have heard the famous adage, “the customer is always right”. The saying is often said to have originated with the founder of the great London department store Selfridges. But as a business principle it has long since evolved from its origins in retail.

Since the 1970s, when marketing shifted the focus of business from simply churning out products to satisfying and retaining the customer, the saying has actually meant a lot more than just placating disgruntled shoppers with the ‘odd freebie’. It recognises that successful businesses put their clients’ needs first and is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in the past.

I certainly spend a lot of time analysing the 'customer journey' in the development work I do with service organisations. Providing added value to clients, by looking to go the extra mile and provide exceptional service, is something that every business should be aiming to do – particularly in tough times where competitive advantage is crucial to success.

But a recent conversation with a friend has made me wonder if we sometimes need to be a little more measured with our customer-centricity…

He works for a company that implements / manages large-scale projects for a number of different clients. Keeping the clients happy has always been – and rightly so – the number one priority for the company. However, in recent months the requests by the clients have become more and more unrealistic. They change their minds at the last minute, putting a huge amount of pressure on my friend and his team. The company don’t want to lose clients to their rivals: so nearly every demand – no matter how unreasonable – is set at a high priority and has to be chased up instantly…often outside of work hours and typically at no extra cost to the client.

Talking to my friend, and hearing about his hard-working but increasingly burnt out team, something became abundantly clear. Whether in the field of retail, IT, hospitality, or finance - desperately trying to keep every customer happy can sometimes prove counter-productive for business:

  • At some point it’s important to remember that in what you do, you are the experts. It’s OK to say no, or to advise a different course of action based on that experience. If a client isn’t actually right, it is sometimes our duty to say so – politely of course!
  • When you work closely with another company it’s important to have a good relationship and a mutual appreciation for the work involved. Jane Sunley, our CEO, recently wrote about the key elements that make for good working relationships and the benefits of working that way – click here to view.
  • Define the difference between adding value – going the extra mile - and doing so much for nothing - it undervalues what you do.
  • Desperation to appease clients can mean that noisier customers tend to get rewarded first. This can have a knock-on effect on the amount of time devoted to quieter (and possibly more valuable) clients whose needs are equally important…
  • It’s important to have clearly defined expectations on both sides of the relationship. That way, when you are asked to do something extra, or different, you can refer to the plan. You then have the choice: to do it - and point out the added value; or you can use those outlines as your ‘get out clause’ if you start to feel taken advantage of.
  • Generally, the more clients the better - but trying to please all of the people all of the time can slow down business growth and affect the quality of service.

Some years ago, Apple CEO Steve Jobs gave a private presentation about iTunes to some independent record label executives.

People kept raising their hands and saying ‘does it do (x)?’ ‘Do you plan to add (y)?’ etc... Finally Jobs said:

“Wait, wait, put your hands down. Listen: I know you have a thousand ideas for all the cool features that iTunes could have. So do we. But we don’t want a thousand features. That would be ugly. Innovation is not about saying ‘yes’ to everything, it’s about saying NO to all but the most crucial features.”

Clearly, placing the customer’s needs first remains absolutely key to a successful business… and being flexible and accommodating are excellent qualities in customer service of any nature – but like with all qualities, too much of a good thing can turn into a weakness.

What do you think?

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