The Customer is Always Right. Unless He’s Wrong

If you’re not familiar with the work of Tom Fishburne, you’re missing out. He describes himself as a ‘marketoonist’ – he’s insightful and he’s funny, and I really like this one on the thorny old question of customers.

That’s what I want to talk about this week – customers, clients, the lifeblood of our businesses.

When I was taking my first tentative steps into sales and marketing, the maxim was simple. ‘The customer is always right’ – a phrase coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the eponymous founder of the department store.

Gradually the world has moved away from that view. The accepted wisdom now seems to be that your staff are far more important than your customers. Gordon Bethune puts the points succinctly in his book, From Worst to First, the story of how he turned Continental Airlines around.

We run more than three million people through our books every month. One or two of those people are going to be unreasonable, demanding jerks. When it’s a choice between supporting your employees who work with you every day, or some irate jerk who demands a free ticket to Paris because you ran out of peanuts, who are you going to support? If [your employees] think you won’t support them when a customer is out of line, even the smallest problem can cause resentment.

I’m not sure that I’d go so far as encouraging you to describe your customers as ‘jerks’ – but the people that are helping you build your business are your staff. And you’ve the chance to create a virtuous circle here: make sure that your employees are happy and motivated and almost by definition your customers will be happier too.

By contrast if your employees don’t feel valued – if they see you always siding with the customer – then the opposite is going to happen. They’re going to feel less valued, and gradually customer service is going to slip and the downward spiral will set in.

In fact, if a customer is particularly difficult to deal with – and is too much for your team to deal with – why not go ahead and fire them? I’ve only seen this happen once, but the impact on office morale was little short of sensational.

But let’s assume that you haven’t fired all your customers. How do you categorise the ones that are left? Assuming you categorise them at all…

We had an interesting discussion round a Board table this week and the conclusion was clear – size isn’t the only thing that matters. There were four other ‘metrics’ that the Board members used to define and grade their customers:

• The amount of work they generate
• The amount of profit they generate
• Their ability to grow – and consequently to help grow your business
• And lastly, enjoyment.

The first two are self-explanatory – and it’s important to note that they’re emphatically not the same. We’ll all have bigger and smaller customers – but the biggest by volume won’t necessarily be the most profitable when you’ve factored your time into the equation.

The most important one to me is number three – their ability, and potential, to grow. I remember an IFA talking to me about his biggest client: “I started dealing with Jim when there was him and six lads in a railway arch. Now there’s him and 120 lads and 15 outlets.” One of the most effective things you will ever do to grow your business is to work with other growing businesses.

And enjoyment. A key ‘measurement’ that is all too easily forgotten. If you don’t enjoy dealing with a customer, if their name flashing up on your mobile makes you groan then stop dealing with them. It’s as simple as that. Life is too short and profit isn’t the only thing in the world.

Talking of enjoyment, I’m off for a week. Dav and I are taking the boys skiing – the first time we’ve been as a family. I’m not sure there’ll be an internet connection in the mountains, so there’ll be no blog next week. I’ll be back – hopefully tanned and quite probably aching – on Friday 28th.


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