We’ve all heard the expression “the customer is always right.” The phrase is thought to have originated more than a century ago by Harry Selfridge of Selfridge’s department stores in London, England. At the time, the notion was incredibly progressive. Customers in the early 1900s had very little power in the consumer market. Consumer options were limited by geography and available transportation, information regarding product reliability and performance was scarce and difficult to obtain, and general attitude towards customers was that if they didn’t like a product or service it was their problem. Customers were at a significant disadvantage as participants in the economy.
The notion that the customer is always right was a welcome change to the consumer culture of the time. The phrase inspired visions of exceptional customer service and created the impression that companies honestly cared about the feelings and needs of their customers. This was the beginning of externally-focused corporate leaders who paid as much attention to their customer’s expectations and desires as to their financial performance.
Today, the concept is still widely touted by customer service gurus as an overall guideline for managing customer interactions – and rightfully so. Modern customers have more power and choice than ever before. They have immediate access to information that would have been unavailable to them just 10 years ago. They can rapidly express their opinions regarding products, services, and businesses with friends, family, and total strangers around the world with the click of only a few buttons. Businesses are now required to compete on a global level to attract and retain customers. On top of this, customer expectations for acceptable service continue to increase. The challenges for customer service continue to expand more rapidly than ever.
Despite these challenges, I believe it is safe to say that most business professionals believe that the customer is not always right. The statement is considered to be more of a guiding principal than a hard fact. We are frequently confronted with customers who are undeniably wrong and who are rarely able to recognize that fact or take responsibility for their own involvement in problem situations. The question that we must ask ourselves as business professionals is -“is that my problem or theirs?”
I propose that the problems of our customers must be our problems. We need to take ownership of the operational details that have compounded over time to create a dissatisfied customer. Over my next several posts, I will analyze both viewpoints on this topic, provide support for my case, and offer suggestions for how to develop a customer-centric mindset for interaction with difficult customers.
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