The Customer is Not Always Right

The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. - Benjamin Franklin

Customers can be jerks who don’t deserve your service at all. I recently found myself in the Denver airport waiting for a flight back to Orlando. At the last minute, they announced a gate change followed by the dreaded announcement that the flight had been canceled. We were instructed to go across the terminal to American Airlines Gate 26 where we were told some of us would get a seat.

Being pretty quick on my feet, I was the first one from our flight to make it over there, only to find that 50 American passengers were already in front of me. I took my place in line and prepared to wait. A few minutes later the rest of the passengers from my original flight showed up and groaned at the sizable line. One man had no intention of being put out. He was a large man wearing a white suit with matching hat and carrying a large leather bag. He marched right to the front of the line waving his ticket in his hand.

“Young lady, I want a first-class seat on this plane and I want it now!” he said. The attractive young blonde looked up at him and politely pointed to the line suggesting that he take his place at the rear. On hearing this, the man, already flushed from the long walk, announced in a voice bordering on rage, “Do you know who I am?”

Cool as a cucumber, the woman picked up the PA microphone and spoke softly into it: “Ladies and gentlemen we have a large man in a white suit who seems to have forgotten who he is. If anyone knows his identity please check with an agent at Gate 26.” Moving at a surprising speed considering his girth, the man quickly vanished and, for the record, did not board the plane.

At Los Angeles Airport last year, I was on a Southwest flight bound for Las Vegas when the woman in front of me started to give the ticket agent a hard time. I’m not sure what it was about since I wasn’t paying attention, but the woman was getting increasingly angry while the agent was obviously trying her best to be nice. Finally the agent decided that she had had enough abuse and taking the ticket from the woman, credited back her charge card and invited her to fly another airline. The woman was shocked.
“You can’t do that!” she said.
“Oh, but I already have,” came the reply.

Herb Kelleher, co-founder and former CEO of Southwest backed up his employees when it came to unreasonable customers, as this passage from the book Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success shows:

Herb Kelleher makes it clear that his employees come first—even if it means dismissing customers. But aren’t customers always right? ‘No, they are not,”Kelleher snaps. “And I think that’s one of the biggest betrayals of employees a boss can possibly commit. The customer is sometimes wrong. We don’t carry those sorts of customers. We write to them and say, ‘Fly somebody else.’ Don’t abuse our people.”

If you follow conventional wisdom, you probably bend over backwards for your customers, even when they are obviously in the wrong. I, however, have a different view. Contrary to popular belief, I think that the customer is not always right; in fact they are very often wrong.

Letting overbearing customers walk over you or your employees can have a very poor effect on morale. That’s why Southwest Airlines gives its employees the power to refund tickets to obnoxious passengers. They don’t expect their people to take abuse and they are rewarded with exceptional employee loyalty.

In small matters, allowing a customer to take advantage of a situation might work out for the best. However, in larger matters or matters of basic human politeness, it pays to stand your ground. For example, in one of my karate schools, the parents supposedly watching their children from the lobby made so much noise that it was impossible to teach class. After asking for their co-operation for a couple of weeks with little success, I simply eliminated the waiting area entirely. They complained, they grumbled, but classes were much better, students were not coached from the bench and several parents privately praised the decision.

Eliminating bad customers early in a relationship will save you a lot of heartache and your employees will thank you.

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