Life lessons in business: The customer is not always right

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The poor airlines have been taking a beating lately. For whatever reason, social media campaigns against airlines just work well as we have seen in two very public episodes with United (the guitar incident a few years ago and the recent incident with the doctor that was dragged off a plane).

My own experiences with airlines have not always been positive so it is sort of hard to stick up for them too much but on the flip side, the social media campaigns have largely been unfair. Yes, United Airlines broke a guitar but that does not define them as an “airline that breaks guitars.” They have shipped millions of guitars and have probably broken like .00001% of them. Companies have to be allowed to make mistakes just like people. No company handles every incident completely correctly.

I was glad to see Delta stand up against the recent bullying of far-right writer Ann Coulter, who decided to get upset when she was asked to move from a preferred seat she paid for. That she considered a slight over a $30 seat worth mobilizing her army of social media followers over is humorous but Delta was not amused. They refunded her $30 (as they should have) but refused to roll over and play dead and publicly chastised her for her bad behavior. (Among other things, she posted a picture of the woman who got her seat, insulting her and calling her an “immigrant” because her skin was darker than her own.)

Coulter is a very public example of a bad customer, but more importantly, she reflects a very common mindset among customers these days which can be boiled down to this: the customer is always right.

I know that the slogan “the customer is always right” has been around a long time. It started as a business ideal but unfortunately, somehow it leaked out to general consumers and they decided to make it their own mantra. In practice, it gives many customers an entitlement mentality in which they think they have the right to bully companies to give them whatever they want when a perceived mistake is made. To further compound the issues, in today’s world of social media, customers can essentially blackmail the offending company by threatening to make their grievances public unless they get what they want.

Guys I despise this mentality. If I catch myself as a customer going there (and sometimes I do), I do a self correction. But in spite of what I like, that is the business environment we currently are in. If you operate a business (especially retail), you will face it. It is what it is.

That brings me to a few business principles about customers.

Unless you have the patience of Job, you should avoid certain industries in which customers are especially demanding and boorish.
There are some people that thrive in situations with difficult customers. If that is you, go for it. However, if you are like me, you may have no business working in the bridal industry for example. I certainly would not want to be in the wedding dress business but I don’t even play for weddings (except for close friends). I don’t want to deal with that. There are many other industries I personally don’t have the temperament for such as home renovations. I don’t want to fight with fussy homeowners about nit picky things.

If your customers are creating abnormal stress in your life, find a new business or a solution to eliminate that stress.
Life is too short. Even if you don’t change businesses, you may need to bring in a person to insulate you from the drama. There are people that are just way better at handling conflict than me (such as my wife). Those people not only can buffer me from conflict but also will tend to resolve things better with the customers on the other side of the conflict.

Understand that it is OK to fire customers
In our family business, way more than 99% of our customers are great. I mean that very honestly by the way. We service many hundreds of customers every week and only stumble across a bad customer ever few weeks. However when we come across those customers, we fire them. I would rather give up that 1% of revenue and have great customers than have a bit more revenue with a handful of nasty customers.

No we don’t cheat the bad ones. If they are owed a refund, they get it. If they claim they did not get a package that we are pretty sure they got, we send it again anyway. But on the flip side, we make a note never to do business with them again. (Once we fired a customer and he kept calling back for months using fake voices and alternate addresses to try to continue our business relationship.)

If a customer is verbally abusive, we fire them. It is our company policy that if a customer is abusive, anyone here has the right to hang up on them. If we are pretty sure a customer is trying to cheat us, we fire them. Usually we don’t tell them they are fired but sometimes we do. (If you tell them they are fired, you just prolong the drama as they try to insist they have a constitutional right to order from you).

Understand the limits and dangers of soured customers on social media
If you are business for long, you will be blackmailed by nasty customers. They will threaten all kinds of things and very often, you have to take those threats seriously. However, on the flip side, you have to understand that every business (and that includes the finest businesses in the world such as Apple) have disgruntled customers firing away at them on social media. It really is not the end of the world. The key is that you need to be taking care of the other 99% of your customers. If you do that, the positive social media about you will drown out the negative. By the way, in spite of that incident with United a few months ago, they are selling tickets on a record pace. All the outrage went nowhere.

To illustrate this, here is our current ranking on BizRate (a company that independently surveys customers). Our 9.6 ranking is about as high as I have ever seen on BizRate but that does not mean we make everyone happy. If you read through the comments, you will see some bad ones. We don’t please everyone because we are not perfect and things go wrong (often things out of our control). However, the positives ratings drown out the negative ratings.

I do recommend that you address negative social media. If someone posts on a place where you can respond, respond and give your side of the story. I see that on TripAdvisor all the time. Even the best hotels in the world get some bad reviews but the management of those properties always comes out with a response. I love that Delta responded to Coulter by not only apologizing but also pointing out her boorish behavior. There is nothing wrong with that.

There is a common theme that runs through a lot of these business posts. These principles are not just about your business; they are about your life too. If you own a small business, your business is very closely intertwined with your life. You can’t walk away from it at 5:00 like some do. You think about business a lot. Because of that, it is important that you have boundaries in your life that protects your quality of life. For me, this particular issue is an important boundary.