The customer is (almost) always right

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

No matter what business you are in, you need customers. One dissatisfied customer can, especially in the era of social media, ruin a long-standing business reputation.

One happy customer might draw more new business than thousands of dollars spent on advertising.

Websites like Yelp! are packed with negatives reviews of business. Some are planted by competitors, others are legitimate complaints by actual customers. Some might be unavoidable mistakes or a problem, in a more civil time, easily resolved.

We, as providers of goods or services operate under an implicit, but unspoken agreement; we do our best to provide our good or service at what we consider a (relatively) fair price and we expect our customer to use and appreciate what we have provided – and, we hope, continue to use our goods or services in the future.

It is not that complicated, but our courts and our conversations are packed with stories of how this seemingly simple social agreement breaks down.

I would guess that we all have our favorite stores, restaurants and suppliers – and those we avoid entirely.

If a customer wants to buy something from you, why does it matter what time it is?  Photo: Morf Morford
If a customer wants to buy something from you, why does it matter what time it is? Photo: Morf Morford

Many stores (especially eating establishments) hold signs that say that they have the right to refuse service to anyone. I can understand that some customers might be a nuisance or cause trouble or just be more trouble than they are worth, but my understanding was that a business – any business – existed to serve customers and yes, make a fair profit.

“If you don’t care, your customer never will.” – Marlene Blaszczyk, Motivational Specialist

Refusing a customer – and a transaction – and, presumably, many future transactions, just seems stupid to me.

Anyone who has worked in customer service knows one central principle; a satisfied customer will tell two or three friends over the next few days. A dissatisfied customer will tell every one who will listen. And they will not forget.

“Courteous treatment will make a customer a walking advertisement.” – James Cash Penney, Founder J.C. Penney Stores 

And in some cases, it doesn’t even matter how good the product or service was.

A second principle quickly learned is that there may be very little correlation between our intent and the impact.

For whatever reason, or possibly even no reason at all, the customer remains disappointed or angry.

Our best intentions have little to no relevance when the customer receives a damaged item or they missed some crucial element in the product description.

Buying or selling online has ramped up the possibilities for misunderstandings and frustrated buyers – or sellers.

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning” – Bill Gates

For several years now, I have sold books and vinyl records from my personal collection on Ebay or Amazon.

The opportunities for complaining seem endless.

As in most situations, 95% or more transactions are smooth and rewarding for both the buyer and the seller. Some are even momentous discoveries for the buyer.

Of the remaining 5%, some are understandable, but a few are just weird.

“Make a customer, not a sale.” – Katherine Barchetti, Founder Barchetti Shops

Yes, I understand that an item may get lost or damaged in shipping, or there might be a discrepancy in how a product is described and what it actually looks like, but most of the time, a disagreement can be easily resolved with a replacement or a refund.

But sometimes that doesn’t happen.

About a year ago I sold something online and had a weird feeling about it. I Googled the buyer’s name and it turns out that this particular buyer had a reputation for buying products online and then claiming they never received them and demanding a refund.

I cancelled the sale and took the experience as yet another reminder of how fragile this provider/customer relationship really is.

We, on both sides of the equation, operate on a fairly high level of trust.

“Thank your customer for complaining and mean it. Most will never bother to complain. They’ll just walk away.” – Marilyn Suttle, Success Coach

Like most people, I am disappointed fairly often. There are many times when I long for the old days of seeing and touching products before I bought them.

Customers and store owners hate to see this sign - especially if it is permanent. Photo: Morf Morford
Customers and store owners hate to see this sign – especially if it is permanent. Photo: Morf Morford

There is something particularly sterile about buying clothes or shoes online. I’ve done it, but it makes me miss the old days of actually trying on things. And I am just not ready to buy food or groceries online.

I have friends who love the convenience of meal kits delivered. I am sure they are – or at least can be  – wonderful – maybe even a life saver for someone who has difficulty preparing their own meals.

But somehow having my meals prepared by strangers and delivered in a box is not how I like to think of my meals.

The technology and logistics of buying and selling are changing constantly, but the central principle remains the same – customers always need things (and at some point, we are all customers) and others have the skills, goods or services that we need and are willing to pay a fair price for.

Just as there has been a revival of vinyl records because people like the “feel” of both the sound and the information on the cover, I think there will be, or maybe even already is, a revival of shopping as an experience – not just a necessary chore.

For most items, customers have a full range of choices. Any given item or service is available in a multitude of forums, stores or providers.

Find that extra something that only you can provide to make that sale, and keep that customer.

Anybody can sell what people need. Selling people what they want – and getting them to want to buy it from you is what makes the difference.