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Is the Customer Always Right? Really?

Buyers are more empowered than ever before. They have more choices, more leverage in a tough economy and a competitive environment. They also have social media, a powerful new way to share their experiences – good or bad – about the companies they buy from.  With all that power, buyers make demands and set high expectations. They know that sellers are afraid that they’ll take their business elsewhere. So they threaten to do so when they are unhappy with service, selection or price.

What’s a seller to do under these circumstances? Given the power shift, is it still valid to operate with a philosophy that “the customer is always right?” If so, where do you draw the line?

Let’s start with the original premise. If it were true that the customer is always right, then there would be no need for salespeople. If the customer were always right, there would be no need to consult, advise, support, make recommendations or sell to them. If the customer were always right, then sellers would accept every objection at face value and all negotiations would cease. And, of course, no business could stay in business.

It’s not true that the customer is always right. But the customer is always the customer.

Let’s work from that perspective. Since the customer is always the customer, we should treat them like the customer. That includes:

  • Respecting that they do have the right and the power to take their business elsewhere.
  • Working to earn their business and their referrals.
  • Providing service that meets their reasonable expectations.
  • Understanding their needs well enough to offer solutions that meet their needs.
  • Selling them those solutions by educating them, challenging misinformation, and showing them the relevant benefit of choosing your product or service.

Sellers go astray in this relationship at two extremes. Sometimes, sellers become so desperate for a customer’s business that they yield to unreasonable demands. Sometimes, sellers become complacent or arrogant and sell only what they want to sell regardless of what the customer needs. Both extremes produce the same results – dissatisfied customers and a business model that cannot be sustained. I’ve heard “the customer is always right” as a factor in both of these extremes. It can be the cause of the first scenario and the solution for the second.

The real answer is that there is a delicate balance here that sellers need to strike. It is up to sellers, the people who are customer-facing and have the connection with the company, too. The seller must represent the needs of company by preserving profit margin, by not unduly taxing support personnel, by adhering to credit policies and ordering systems, etc. The seller must also represent the needs of the customer by working within the company’s systems to find the best solutions, to ensure the best service and on-time delivery, to provide updates and new ideas, and to correct misunderstandings that the customer may express as demands or threats.

Maintaining this balance may not be easy for a seller who routinely hears customer objections and complaints. It isn’t uncommon for sellers to empathize with their customers so much that they soon fall into a mindset where they, too, see their company or their products or their prices in a negative light. In fact, this may be the most important reason for sales meetings – to remind sellers about the strengths of the company and its products so they clearly see and can defend the value.

Imbalance also occurs when sellers side with their customers’ unreasonable demands. This can happen when sellers don’t understand the reasons behind company decisions. It’s easy to say “yes” to a request for a rush order. But it may be much more difficult for the production department to fill that order. Doing so may require overtime expenses, delaying others’ orders, reconfiguring production specs and equipment, sourcing materials at a premium and so on. Sellers should take time to shadow in other departments and to understand what they’re committing to before they make those commitments. By getting this type of business acumen, a seller can also explain to a customer why the answer must sometimes be “no.”

The best practice for striking this balance happens when there is a deeper level collaboration, a genuine partnership between the selling and the buying companies. With that, both companies understand each other’s needs and continually seek mutually rewarding solutions to any issues that arise. In these relationships, the seller facilitates understanding in both directions.

When it’s impossible to have that kind of relationship and impossible even to work through unrelenting demands, the best practice is to consider firing the customer. Not all business is good business. It may seem like an extreme step to take, but it’s actually good business to protect the interests of your business.

There’s a widely-circulated story about Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, that dates back several years. Apparently, a passenger was appalled by the lack of a serious tone when the flight crew made a few jokes during the pre-flight safety instructions. She wrote a letter of complaint to Kelleher and threatened to stop flying Southwest. Kelleher’s reply to her was a short letter. It simply said “We’ll miss you.” Rather than changing the business model or over-reacting to the maxim that “the customer is always right,” Kelleher stood by his business beliefs and did what was right for his company. In essence, he fired his customer.

Of course, he was in a position of authority and had every right to make that decision. Sellers don’t have that same level of decision-making power, so they should have guidelines to follow and should take matters that get out of hand to sales managers. Proactively addressing the situation is better for the business and the company’s reputation than the alternative. That alternative is having salespeople who over-commit, can’t deliver on the promises they’ve made, and ultimately lose the business due to poor customer service. Sometimes, someone has to say “no.” Saying it on the front end is so much better than saying it after the fact because the customer is not always right.

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