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The Customer Is Always Right: The Verdict

Customer Is Always Right

The world’s most successful companies, especially after they get big, almost without exception stop listening to their customers and instead start trying to force their tastes on them. And the companies that fail, even after they’ve found initial success, tend to be the ones that stubbornly continue to listen to what their customers want.

The companies that succeed are never really very good at predicting what their customers will want in the future. Instead what they’re good at is detecting when those tastes are changing and then moving faster than everyone else to get out in front of them. But the way they do it isn’t by asking customers what they want. It’s by asking themselves “what do we want?” Then they figure out how to give it to them.

Is The Customer Always Right? Four Reasons the Answer Is ‘No’

Customers don’t always know what they need. If a chef asked every diner how to season their dish, they would end up with boring food. It’s the same for software developers:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford

Customers don’t understand what it takes to make quality products. They often ask for things that are impossible or ill-advised to build. A customer may request a new feature, not realizing the complexity and unreliability that it brings to the product.

Customers don’t always pay for quality. In an effort to cut costs, some customers will try to push you into a race-to-the-bottom on price. As a result, you have fewer resources available to build a great product.

Customers don’t always know how to use your product effectively. Even if your product has intuitive interfaces and clear documentation, customers may still not understand how to get the most value out of it.

The customer is always right

This adage has been pounded into our heads from the moment we enter the world of business, and it’s true that there’s a lot of truth to it. After all, if it weren’t for customers, you wouldn’t have any business at all.

However, there are times when the customer is wrong. As hard as this might be to believe, you actually don’t have to do whatever they want – particularly if their request would hurt your company in the long run. 

Why the customer is always right is often misunderstood

“The customer is always right” is a phrase coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of London’s Selfridge’s department store. It immediately became an advertising slogan and then a mantra for managing customers.

But what does it really mean?

It should be obvious that “the customer is always right” does not mean what it seems to mean. It doesn’t mean if a customer says your product has a feature it doesn’t have, you should agree with him. Any company that tried that would quickly go out of business. Nor does it mean you should give the customer whatever she wants. Customers often want things they don’t need or can’t afford or are actually harmful to them. Or they may be wrong about what they need or can afford or will like.

What the customer is always right means is simply this: the customer is always right about what he wants done.

The idea that the customer is always right is usually interpreted as an injunction to give the customer whatever she wants. But it can be interpreted differently. A business can benefit by identifying what customers want and giving it to them. But how do you find out what they want? Listening to them can be a good place to start.

There are two important lessons here. The first is that how you interpret “the customer is always right” affects your behavior, and thus whether you actually end up serving the customer well. The second is that when you’re trying to figure out what people want, that’s when you need to listen most carefully, not arrogantly assume you already know.

In particular, when people are telling you about their problems, you need to pay close attention. They are actually telling you what they want: a solution for their problem. If they didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be a problem. The fact that they’re not asking for your solution doesn’t mean they don’t want a solution; it may just mean they don’t know your solution exists yet.

What to Do When the Customer Isn’t Right

Every now and then, a customer will demand something you can’t deliver, or that you think is a bad idea. How do you respond?

We all know how to respond to a customer who asks for something we can do but don’t want to. We give the customer a price so high they’ll back down. “Sure, we can do that. It’ll be $10,000. What budget did you have in mind?”

But what if we really can’t do what the customer wants? Or what if we think the customer is wrong and they should want something different?

The usual response is to try and convince the customer they are wrong. This can work sometimes, but it has two big disadvantages:

  • The customers usually have more experience in their industry than you do, so they may actually be right;
  • Even if you win the argument, your relationship with the customer suffers.

A better approach is to start by telling the customer what you think is best for them. Every business person knows what a customer is. They’re what we’re in business for. We would be nothing without them. Our job is to give them what they want, isn’t it?

But customers don’t always know what they want. Frequently, they’re wrong about that, and when they are, it can be dangerous to indulge them.

A business’ first duty is to its shareholders. That’s the way most companies are legally set up, and unless you work for a nonprofit or a government agency, your obligations really do begin there. If you don’t take care of the shareholders’ investment, eventually there won’t be any shareholders or employees left to worry about either.

The shareholders invest in a company because they expect it to make money. And you make money by creating wealth: building things that people want. If customers were always right, they’d never have needed us in the first place; they’d have built whatever they wanted themselves.