About 25 years ago, when I was in my first VP of Customer Service job, I received a call from our Southeastern Sales Manager.  He told me that one of our largest domestic customers was unhappy with the prices I was charging for our service contract.  He suggested that I go to Atlanta and meet face-to-face with the customer.  I agreed and we made the appointment for the next week.

Both the Sales Manager and local Service Engineer picked me up at the airport and drove me downtown to visit our customer.  The Sales person said that the customer was not upset but wanted to share his feelings and have a useful discussion.  Also, he really liked our service group.

When we entered his office we had some coffee and did the obligatory 5 minutes of small talk. We then got down to business and had a useful discussion.  The end result is that I stuck to our contract price but agreed to highly discount future installation costs if his company purchased a minimum number of add-on products each year.  Everyone was happy with the outcome; I defended our contract pricing, our Sales Manager had a good idea how much the customer would spend for the next 3 years, and the Service Engineer was happy that everyone was happy!

Then the customer said, “I’m glad you agreed with me because the customer is always right.”  I said “the customer is always the customer” and then went on to explain that he deserves to be treated with respect.  Then came the moment when I blurted out, “we have a professional relationship, and our job is to help you succeed and avoid making mistakes.  If we believe you are making an error then our obligation is to try and prevent the error but, if we can’t change your mind, we have to do everything we can to create a good outcome.”  That’s when my two associates turned white and tried to blend into the corner.  After 10 second of silence (that felt like 10 minutes) our customer smiled and said, “RIGHT.  Thank you for looking out for my best interests.”  We all shook hands and walked across the street for a very nice lunch.

The morale of this story is that just maybe “the customer is always right” works in a B2C relationship but certainly not in a B2B relationship.  And for the record, I have seen people on the street or in the office dressed so inappropriately that the sales person who sold they outfit should have been taught the even in a B2C transaction, the customer may be really wrong!

This leads to the following paragraphs from Wikipedia about the origin of this overused slogan:

“The customer is always right” is a motto or slogan, which exhorts service staff to give a high priority to customer satisfaction. It was popularized by pioneering and successful retailers such as Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field. They advocated that customer complaints should be treated seriously so that they should not feel cheated or deceived. This attitude was novel and influential when misrepresentation was rife and caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) was a common legal maxim. Variations include “le client n’a jamais tort” (the customer is never wrong) which was the slogan of hotelier César Ritz who said, “If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked.”

“However it was pointed out as early as 1914 that this view ignores that customers can be dishonest, have unrealistic expectations, and-or try to misuse a product in ways that void the guarantee and states “if we adopt the policy of admitting whatever claims the customer makes to be proper, and if we always settle them at face value, we shall be subjected to inevitable losses.” The work concluded “If the customer is made perfectly to understand what is means for his to be right, what right on his part is, then he can be depended on to be right if he is honest, and if he is dishonest, a little effort should result in catching him at it.” An article a year later by the same author addressed the caveat emptor aspect while raising many of the same points as the earlier piece.”

So, as far back as 100 years ago, people were talking about how this slogan was inappropriate.  I am pleased to continue this 100-year tradition!  And, if you agree with my premise, please share this post with your friends and associates.