The simple answer to the question is ‘No’. Of course I have heard the cliché ‘the customer is King’. I however feel customers thinking they are Kings have led to a lot of them amassing powers and privileges onto themselves. Businesses have also almost always learned to bear the rather difficult postures of some customers. I chanced upon a website called . It is dedicated to small businesses (in the US) as a way of fighting back when abused but customers and other businesses. I think the presence of sites like this just confirms (what we already know) that customers are not always right. Customers are important. Of course they are. Admittedly businesses exist because of them. If customers do not patronize products and services, businesses will go under. In fact, they will not even exist to start with. Businesses produce, consumers use. It is your typical symbiotic relation (one interdependent on the other). Symbiotic, but it seems for a long time a certain arm of the relationship fails to extend to the other certain conditionality they expect to have. 

Customer Types

From my experience as a customer firstly, and as someone at the other end of providing a service, I notice broadly 4 types of customers. Firstly we have difficult customers who will want to create, ferment, and fan trouble. They are the types who approach a service provider or business with a look in their face as if to say ‘I will deal with you whether or not you treat me nice’. Such customers are often very rude and do not give a hoot how they approach or treat frontline and indeed management staff. They require a certain level of management, often edging close to they been pampered. Others approach a business knowing their limits. They are the types who appear with a ‘I understand your work’ kind of look. These are often very patient people who give frontline folks long ropes to pull. It is not too strange to find some businesses treat such people with less attention sometimes. It is a bit of human nature when we take a lot of things for granted, like quiet, cooperating type. Some customers are indifferent to what to expect and really care less how they are received. These are the type who may just walk out the door and come back if they feel the service waiting for them does not quite suite them. They are indifferent but they tend to know what they need to do but until you push them to the wall. Then there is the ‘I know my right’ type who often turns to be massive trouble rousers.  These ones can even create their own troubles and expect to trap a business.

Ty Kiisel, a contributor for Forbes magazine outlines three reasons why customers are not always right. It is worthwhile to reproduce (almost verbatim) what Kiisel said because it puts the whole discussion into a better perspective.

“Customers really aren’t always sure what they want and many times we don’t do a good job of uncovering what they really need”. I’m a huge fan of how Genyo Takeda and his team developed the NintendoWii. I’m not what you would call a gamer and a game station wasn’t really on my list of things I needed to have, but for some reason it was on my wife’s. I think it’s because Takeda took an unconventional approach to building the Wii and came up with a gaming consul that even non-gamers (like my wife) could appreciate.

“This may sound paradoxical, but if we had followed the existing road-maps we would have aimed to make it ‘faster and flashier’,” said Takeda. “In other words, we would have tried to improve the speed at which it displays stunning graphics. But we could not help but ask ourselves, ‘How big an impact would that direction really have on our customers?”

Takeda suggested that had they continued down that path, they would have created another PlayStation and my wife (like millions of others) would have never purchased a Wii. Some of the changes he made were very basic. For starters, he replaced the gaming control with a wand that more naturally mimicked the way people really moved. In fact, I think that’s what really appealed to my wife. The Wii didn’t require her to get used to the way the controller worked. If you were driving a car in Mario Kart, you used something that looked like a steering wheel. If you were playing tennis or baseball, you swung a racket or a bat. It was pretty straightforward to her. The simple nature of the graphics seemed to make our Wii something we pull out at parties to interact with each other rather than sequester ourselves in some kind of first-person roll-playing game in an elaborate digital world. The community or physically interactive nature of the game was a real departure from other video games. It didn’t require a LAN party or internet connection to have fun with your friends on the Wii.

Takeda changed the world of video games not by asking his customers what they wanted, but by watching how they interacted with each other and games generally, and then applied it to building a new platform with a revolutionary approach to video games.

I think the same is true for our customers. We need to uncover what our customers really want because they often can’t think out of their current paradigm to consider something new or revolutionary.

Secondly, Ty Kiisel says that “If customers don’t know the answer, they make it up”. According to him, Steven Pinker and some pretty interesting research he outlines in his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, if we don’t know the answer, we make it up. In a nutshell, different parts of the brain process information differently. When patients without a connection between the brain halves (some people are born with this condition and it’s a treatment for others with rare neurological maladies) are asked questions, if one side of the brain didn’t know the answer and couldn’t communicate with the other side, it would make one up.

This is relevant to us because subconsciously, if we don’t know the answer to a question like, “Do you prefer the red package or the blue package?” we make it up. This is the problem with reliance on customer feedback. Although it might be unintentional, human nature compels us to provide an appropriate answer (even if it’s not true). Focus groups (or asking your customers) might be a good data point, but the human propensity to make stuff up makes those opinions unreliable.

“Customer expectations are not always rational”: In fairness, sometimes we allow, and even facilitate unrealistic expectations with our customers. Spinning the real story about a product or service to make it sound sexier than it really is sets up the situation for an unhappy customer down the road. A few years back I picked up Darrell Huff’s book, How to Lie with Statistics, and have since become a real skeptic of the “data” most marketing cites to make their products look good.

Marketers and sales people are accused of doing this all the time, but politicians have made it an art form. I don’t think it matters on which side of the aisle they sit, I only trust half of the statistics they cite. Most of the time politicians will, for the short-term gain of an election, twist and manipulate the truth to suit their needs. Hence, at the beginning of every election cycle there are folks who feel that they were mislead by the promises made by the guy or gal trying to get re-elected.Even considering all the blame we probably deserve, some customers will have unrealistic expectations no matter what we do. Some of our customers hear what they want to hear and have unrealistic expectations without any of our help at all. “I thought the fertilizer you put on my lawn would have killed all the weeds in 24 hours!” “My car doesn’t get 10 more miles per gallon after the tune-up you just charged me $200 for, I want my money back!” OR, “This new suit didn’t get me the job I just interviewed for!”

There have been many times over the course of my career when I’ve had to sit across the desk or on the other end of the phone with a customer who had unrealistic expectations. It’s never easy and there are even those who have made it a matter of course to complain knowing that most of us will eventually cave and give them an additional discount or something free to placate them. In that sense, I’ve remained true to my Father’s direction to always try to keep the customer happy. However, I also have to admit that I’ve grumbled under my beard at a number of customers and their unrealistic expectations.

Those companies that look beyond what their customers say or what they ask for and spend the time to discover what they really need seem to be the businesses that really succeed. If you’ve experienced this in your business, please share your experiences here.

Is the customer always right? Nope. Does that mean we don’t have to work like crazy to keep our customers happy? What do you think?

Just as Ty Kiisel concludes, our customers are not always right. However having said all these, it is important to realize that customers need to be treated as important as they really are. As already mentioned, they bring in the revenue needed to keep a business going. The typical me however will tolerate the barrage of nonsense that customers throw, but I do not think businesses should tolerate abuse. The dignity of a human being is priceless. Yes, more valuable than the coins a customer will bring in.

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