In the world of service culture, the customer is always right. Wait a minute. That’s wrong!

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In the world of uplifting service culture, we put the needs of our customers as our highest priority. Entire systems and ways of interacting, are based upon “the care and feeding” of our most valuable resource…the customers and colleagues we serve.

These precious people – be they customers, clients, patients, guests, employees, vendors, or partners –  are the people on whom our businesses rely. They are, in the end, the profitability of our business.

So what should you do when a customer surfaces who is mean-spirited, abusive, or accusatory? What happens when you clearly know that a customer is not being honest?

In one well documented story, Southwest Airlines sets a great example. The Southwest airlines customer service department repeatedly received letters from an upset passenger. The woman had complaints about the airline’s service every time she flew. She didn’t like the snacks, she didn’t like the seating policies, she didn’t care for the casual nature of the staff.  Finally, one of her complaints was forwarded to Herb Kelleher,  CEO and founder of Southwest Airlines.

Herb’s reply to this perpetually unhappy customer? ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’ Mr. Kelleher has gone on record to say that he will not allow customers to abuse his staff. He asks such a customers to fly another airline.

One goal of “Uplifting Service Culture” is to empower your front-line staff. We want employees to have pride in the work they do, and the results that they achieve.

By openly promoting and accepting “the customer is always right” attitude, you may be putting a  customer’s untruthful story above the training, commitment and expertise of your staff.  You may thereby – inadvertently – disempower your well trained staff, and give an abusive customer the upper hand.

When all is said and done, customers may not always be right, but they ARE always the customers. You must decide which customers you want to keep, and which customers are better lost, released or even guided to your friendly competition.

Letting abusive customers go tells your staff know that you support them, you believe in them, and you will always have their back. This allows you and your team to focus on, and nurture, the clients you want to keep – the ones that really matter.

Posted On: 4 May 2011
Categories: Service Culture
Tags: , , ,


31 Responses

  1. Allan H Jensen says:

    Right on Ron,

    I’ve always preached to my customer service staff that there are lengths to which we will not go and there are points at which we will fire a customer. You may have to deal with a certain degree of abuse when a customer is dissapointed but when it gets personal and abusive it ends right there. I’ve had to fire a few customers over the years; I can count them on one hand, but I’ve also had to tell a few more customers that they stepped over the line and it went well from there on. I’ve felt tremendously good when I was in a junior position and senior management supported my view to end relationships with a customer. It has felt good for me and I’ve received excellent feedback from the frontline when I authorized the frontline to say stop when it went too far. I’ve always aimed for excellent customer service but put a limit to it when it came to customer servitude.

  2. Andrea Ihara says:

    Allan,

    Cheers to you! You must have great support from your team, because clearly you support them. THAT is how you take care of your “internal service partners”. Well done.

    I believe that there are bullies in the world. Bullies are those who like to use force, either physical (heaven forbid) or verbal, against those that they believe to be weaker. Once you call out a bully by first pointing out (quite directly) that their actions will not be tolerated, and that the outburst will clearly not serve them in returning their ultimate objective, typically they back down. A win-win can usually be found. There will, as you point out, be those times that a bully-customer must be fired.

    Thanks for checking in Allan!

    Andrea

  3. Christine Seymour says:

    I agree completely. It shouldn’t be a case of customer service at any cost because in the long term it doesn’t do your business any good. As a small business we are after discerning customers who value our services. We haven’t had to go as far as firing any customers but there are some we’ve been glad to lose! I don’t want any of my staff to dread calls from certain customers, because it does affect them and the way they feel about working for our company. Our business will only move forward if our staff are with us.
    Thanks for a great article Andrea and excellent comments from Allan.

    Christine Seymour
    Director
    KTS Computers Ltd

  4. Dan Haygeman says:

    I appreciate what both Andrea and Allan have had to say here.

    I notice that I am POWERFULLY attracted to the notion of ‘firing’ an abusive or otherwise inappropriate customer or client. I put the word ‘powerfully’ in all caps because I’m a bit suspicious: what is my attraction to this way of framing a necessary move in providing great service, namely, ending a relationship that is not working. It seems that something in me wants to wait as long as possible, perhaps until things are bad enough that doing a kind of Donald Trump, “You’re Fired!!!” feels both right as well as powerful. I notice that what is perhaps underneath this strategy of procrastination has more to do with my anxiety at taking appropriate action, and my lack of practice at taking such action in a way that Herb Kelleher exemplifies: The right conversation, in the right mood.

    I recall being memorably ‘fired’ by a coach/consultant a number of years ago. Patricia had been working with me to address some issues with my personal organizing strategy. I had twice called her from my cell phone while driving, rather than being seated attentively at my desk as she had repeatedly been requesting. On our third call, after confirming that the background static on the line was indeed road noise at my end of the connection, Patricia made a memorable response. Without any ‘heat’ or negative energy she said, “You know Dan, it seems to me that your insistence on having our conversations while driving makes it impossible for me to deliver on my promises to you at a level you deserve.” (Insert endless pause.) I finally responded, “I think I’ve just been fired in a way that makes me want to refer friends and colleagues to you!” We agreed, went our separate ways, and to this day I still appreciate Patricia. Yes, for having the right words and the correct assessment. More importantly, for being in a MOOD of service and care as she delivered those words to me.

    Dan H.

  5. Erwin Steneker says:

    Hi Ron! Yes, you are so right… Your post reminds me of an article I wrote years ago (with a link to one of the most awful yet entertaining stories on a customer that lost the right to remain customer). http://www.customerservicepoint.com/the-customer-is-always-right.html

    Kind regards, Erwin

  6. James McManis says:

    Wow, Ron! You have taken a really thoughtful and wise position here. I respect you in your role as world leader in the customer service arena taking this position. Bravo and thank you.

    James

  7. Kahlon says:

    Ron; what if we have mean-spirited colleauges or peers; those who simply drag their feet to work and dont have to deal with nasty customers yet they simply feel short changed in the service world as service providers. What do we do with them?

  8. phoenix says:

    There are bullies at work and in the homeground. But if at workplaces, these bullies who show insubordination are tolerated by the boss as “this is the way that person speaks”, what can I do?

  9. Jayarajan Nair says:

    Well said, Ron. We should not let our staff be abused by such customers who are obviously taking advantage of us. Some of them are simply opportunistic customers. I admit these are a small group but nevertheless they can be draining on our resources if not tackled correctly.

    If there is a lapse and the customer is angry or demanding, well we will certainly take it in our stride, fix the problem, and even go the extra mile so that he knows it is just a one-off lapse and remain loyal with us.

    For abusive customers, we would rather have them go somewhere else.

  10. Yvonne says:

    Ron, I am glad you are on my side and agree with you totally. Unfortunately my colleagues who are marketing/account servicers will not support me when we meet with people like “Mrs Crabapple”. My team has to deal with such difficult and unreasonable people frequently and our marketing colleagues do not want to educate the customers let alone fire them.

  11. Hi James, This post was penned by my colleague Andrea in Portland, Oregon. The UP! Your Service movement is expanding worldwide. It’s really wonderful to have our resonant pillar of alignment with you in the Seattle area!@James McManis

  12. Vinit says:

    Rightly said, I do agree with you and specailly in this part of the world we see customers who throw tantums very often. One customer mentioned the reason for shouting and screaming is to scare people and get them out of the way. In ME people come from different cultures and countries and therefore are afraid of losing their jobs and therefore give in to unreasonable demands of the customers as they do not have backing of the management.

  13. Sivam says:

    Hi Andrea,

    To me ‘Customer is always right’ refers to thier value perception of our Service. No one says their biassed or unacceptable behavior should be taken as right. That is where Account Teams play a crucial role in escalating within customer organisation for corrective measures. In fact, Leaders in customer generally like this.

    With regard to the ‘luxury’ Herb had in directing unruly customer to other airline, not all sectors have this. Some corporations will have maximum 10 customers in a country and every staff in that customer from clerk to CEO are important. The staff in those organisation need to be understanding this and need to be given right messages.

    Sivam

  14. Rekha Nair says:

    Fully agree! My team and I work in a similar scenario where we encounter such incidents. While we quote “customer is always right”, when it come to abuse of your employee we need to take that stand and absolutely no nonsense. It is ok losing an abusive customer.

  15. Mohamad Nasser says:

    I fully agree with Ron when its is small to medium business. But when it is big business with a customer (in millions or even billions), the limit line should extend – maybe to infiniti!

    For example, in telecom business, when the competition is very tough and you may only have 2-3 customers in one country, you cannot tolerate losing a customer even if he is exceeding the limits!

  16. Andrea Ihara says:

    @Dan Haygeman

    Dan, It seems that Patricia may have been even more of a coach to you after she severed your relationship, than when you were her client. Bravo Patricia! She clearly stated her rationale, and then her grounding assessments for her action. No heat, no annoyance, just the facts.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful, and insightful, story!

    Andrea

  17. Andrea Ihara says:

    @Kahlon
    Kahlon,

    This is an interesting distinction, particularly because you mention that this is a peer, not someone who to reports to you. I believe the culture of your organization would be called into action on this one. In a true service culture, 360 degree feedback, or open communication would first be required. You would need to ground your assessment about this individual. What have they done that has led you to believe they are mean-spirited, or dragging their feet? How many instances have there been? Have you documented times and situations? This would be the best start, and then again, address without anger or tone. Purely, “this is what I observe”, “this is how it is affecting me”, and “I would like to work together to improve this”.

    Should this not be effective, of course your manager or director would need to become involved. Since you can’t “fire” a difficult colleague, appropriate and careful interaction is your best answer….

    Andrea

  18. Andrea Ihara says:

    @phoenix

    Phoenix…

    Kahlon seems to have similar issues, and I suggested a course of careful communication, with grounding assessments and a call to action. I don’t want to bore the other readers with repeating it, but I would love you to read how I responded. I hope that there is some level of insight there for you…

    Andrea

  19. Andrea Ihara says:

    @Mohamad Nasser

    Hi Mohamed,

    I fully understand your concern. I was in telco at one time myself. To me, there is a clear differentiation between exceeding limits of a product or service, vs. abusing a staff member for personal gain. In a professional situation, where it has been determined that no customer should be lost, (regardless of behavior) – really exposes a company to the “opportunistic” bad attitudes. In this case, Sr. Mgmt should be ready, willing and able to take the abusive customers from the front line facing staff, and handle them personally…

    Andrea

  20. Mudassar says:

    Well, its like a big relief to the ones who feel helpless when an abusive customer not only abuses the company but ones in person to ‘no limits’. Working out a strategy of putting a stop to such exploitive customers is a very good idea.
    I took charge of a bank branch which was running into losses. There was this one customer who had a big share in the branch deposit (at a very high rate) he would come and abuse every staff member of the branch and almost on daily basis.He would shout out loud in front of other customers and would misbehave even with them. One day, I called him up and said “Mr. Farooq! You deserve better service and better rates than what we do offer and I can tell you that Bank X (Our competition ) will be more than happy to have you doing business with them”
    Soon after Mr. Farooq left, my staff became highly energised and branch bounced back in few months.

    Mudassar Hussain

  21. Arul Varman says:

    I don’t agree about losing the customer at any point of time. If you take the airline story, we have a lot of problems nowadays with crew, ground staff and the service they provide. The CEO may be enjoying good times so he is ready to lose the customer. I always go with customer is always right. If a customer is going beyond the line, then we should apply UP! Your Service skills which is supposed to be your natural. Complaints are feedbacks for improvement. With one erratic customer we can’t change our slogan or our position – especially when we all project that we are champions of customer support!

    MY POLICY IS: YOU DON’T GIVE A CHANCE FOR CUSTOMERS TO ABUSE WHEN YOU GIVE SERVICE THAT IS PROACTIVE!
    – Arul Varman, Xerox Emirates

  22. Sufian says:

    Hi Andrea,

    I am always following up your customer service “dos” and “don’ts”…The company that I am working with is dealing in water supply distribution, an exclusive but regulated industry (no competition) in one of the States in my Country (Malaysia). How could we follow Mr. Kelleher’s footstep?

    Sufian

  23. Anita S. says:

    Nicely done Mr. Kelleher. Unfortunately not all CEO’s feel the same way when it comes to the front line employees and our customers (both internal and external).

  24. Andrea Ihara says:

    @Arul Varman

    Arul…. Thank you for your comments! It is always provocative to hear the other side of a discussion. Bravo to you for taking a different approach.

    Andrea

  25. Andrea Ihara says:

    @Sufian

    Sufian,

    I am sorry for my delayed response. I was traveling extensively last week.

    You are in a unique situation, having no competition, but also (if I understand correctly), having customers that have no choice as to who provides their service. This never creates great feelings of loyalty.

    I would ask what the voice of your customer is saying, and if there is more of a “problem” with dissatisfied customers, or dissatisfied employees? Often, at least in the USA, in situations such as yours, employees are typically in jobs like this for their entire career, and frequently are tired, feel unappreciated, and worst of all – non-empowered to be of much help to the customers. They have long since lost their passion for service, and are just doing the minimum required. If I am on track with my thoughts, the best road might be one that involves empowering the employees and helping them find their drive to help once again…

    Andrea

  26. Morgan says:

    “The customer is always right” mentally encourages those who would game the system. For example my manager worked for a corporate hotel what was doing a 100% satisfaction guarantee promotion and the company soon saw this couple using the promotion to get free hotel rooms right across the country. Another example was when people wanted to get into our pool after hours and insisted they be allowed to because they (ie customer) were always right.

    Supporting “customers” like this is what causes customer care burnout because the employees KNOW that these people are costing the company money but the company wants to try and keep _every_ customer even if they are gaming the system such that the company will *never* make money off of them.

  27. Andrea Ihara says:

    Morgan,

    Thank you for contributing. This blog generated wonderful discussion points from both sides of the issue.

    Customers CAN be difficult, and can “work” the system, to be sure. I hope that this kind of customer is a **very** small % of the total. Business owners and top line managers have to be very supportive of their staff in the case of a difficult or abusive customer. Even though often the customer will be treated better than their attitude would require, we must be sure that the employee feels supported, heard, and empowered.

    Andrea

  28. Anon says:

    Hi All

    This is such a great read but sadly no help since I have been asked to resign or face getting fired tomorrow if I don’t apologise to a client and work on her event.

    EVEN THOUGH I have done nothing wrong and was actually the victim.

    I know its hard to fathom that I am not at all at fault, but honestly its the truth and I am an excellent employee with no previous complaints regarding my work.

    Anyway, bottom line is that a client lost control when I merely asked for the late information that was supposed to have been sent to me and got personal, vicious and threatening. It’s amazing since I actually put her on loudspeaker to my colleagues could here the words and all I said to verything she mentioned was a little ok. When she was dones, she said do you understand. I said yes. And we said bye.

    I immediately advised my manager and handed over the booking refusing to work with this client. The next morning, manager said she called the client, from what the client said it was actually very similar to what I had said but I have no right to refuse to work with anyone. I got an ultimatum to either apologise to client and work with her, or resign immediately. I am now at home since I refuse, however I have until tomorrow to decide .. but I won’t apologise for nothing.

    I would also like to point out, that this client doesn’t even give our company great business and this is a 1 day booking – nothing else was booked for the last 2 years. So it’s been great realising my worth here.

    I am so upset and can’t believe that a company can get away with this.

    🙁

  29. Andrea Ihara says:

    @Anon

    Anon,

    I would normally not take immediate action to answer a blog response, but I felt your discomfort so profoundly, I needed to answer immediately.

    There is nothing that I can say that will provide clarity for you. You are in a difficult position. As I mentioned in the blog, it is important that an employee feels supported, and if a company is not willing to “release” a client, then the really difficult clients should be handled by management.

    Clients can get upset and abusive, and often are pushing beyond the realm of what is appropriate. It happens, sadly. And people like you are asked to handle them.

    Your company has asked you to make a difficult decision and I know how upset you must be….

    My heart goes out to you and I hope that whatever the outcome, that you strive to even greater levels of service in the future….

    Andrea

  30. Wong Lai Chun says:

    @ Anon – I am so sorry things turn out this way for you. It can be very challenging to work with customers or anyone who don’t seem to be satisfied with anything we do and nothing is good enough.

    I am curious as to how you interpret ‘apologize’. Is an apology tantamount to acknowledging it’s all your fault? It is common to interpret it as such. However, I understand ‘apology’ as not necessarily an acknowledgement to a fault. Instead, an apology is to acknowledge and empathize the negative emotions (Whatever the reasons of that may be) experienced. An example such as “I am so sorry you were upset with this….” etc etc…

    Does your manager expect you to acknowledge it is solely your fault to the customer or she just wants you to pacify the customer and rectify the situation?

    In a real world of service, we may not have the luxury to select who we want to serve. It helps to have support from your boss or colleagues and if you don’t get that, it can be very stressful. Handing back the booking to your manager and your refusal to work with this customer could be reason enough for your manager to say that you refuse to take responsibility and hence the threat of ‘firing’ you. It can be very hard sometimes but taking responsibility also includes handling the difficult tasks at work and not just the easy stuff.

    In any situation, you have build enough self-confidence to know that it is not ‘your fault’ regardless of what others say. You can explain all you can but most customers or even bosses are not interested to listen to that. Customers and bosses are mostly interested to rectify the situation quickly.

    We can feel wronged and hurt. The emotions can be overwhelming. Our pride can get in the way. However, feel confident to know it was not your fault and in any life situation, we can never please everyone and it is OK.

    Find a way to ‘cool’ this customer down – apologize for the emotions of the customer though not necessarily saying it’s your fault. Explore alternatives and solutions to help him out.

    Customers do lose control and blow up. Most times, they (if they are not mentally psychotic) do cool down and feel like ‘jerks’ over their own behavior. It is usually caused by their frustrations of not being able to get their needs met. Show them you are a professional and not be overwhelmed by emotions like they did. I know -it is easier said than done but certainly a skill anyone can learn. You can learn that too.

    If your manager and organization continue to blame you for every thing that goes wrong and not give you support, you have 2 options – build up an immunity (or numbness to NOT let that affect you) OR move on to where they do appreciate what you can contribute- even in difficult tasks.

  31. Fahmi says:

    The customer is always right!!! Where did this come from? Actually it has been right for sometime, since it is a point of view that has improved many businesses in the past. Over time and with experiments we learn more. The end result is to make profit while we serve others.



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