How to go beyond ‘the customer is always right’?

My friend just quit her job. She was working in the consulting field, like me, and I know from mutual friends that she has been doing a good job at making her clients happy with all the deliverables she was responsible for. What I remember most from the last time we met were two things: one, the deepening furrow in the middle of her forehead that had not been there before. Two, her frustration with her clients’ demands. The poor thing would go on and on, ending every vignette with a resigned sigh of “what to do, the customer is always right,” in her soft, sing-song voice.

Naomi Karten, author of books on managing SLAs (service level agreements), managing expectations and closing communication gaps, mentioned a list that made sense to me in her article, What do Customers Want Anyway? on her website here.  When she asked participants to her seminars, they told her that when they are customers, they want:

  1. to be taken seriously
  2. competent, efficient service
  3. anticipation of their needs
  4. to be kept informed
  5. explanations on their terms
  6. follow-through
  7. basic courtesies
  8. honesty
  9. to be informed of the options
  10. feedback
  11. not to be passed around
  12. professional services
  13. to be listened to (and heard)
  14. empathy
  15. dedicated attention
  16. respect
  17. knowledgeable help
  18. friendliness

Read the full article to find out more. I visit her website because after so many hours of Newsweek-, John Naisbitt-, Fortune-style of reporting, it’s a relief for me to read things in simple terms (remember list item #5?)

For many of us, we put on our own ‘I’m a customer now’ hat in order to get in their shoes. However, my friend took it to the extreme. Wearing her ‘customer is always right’ cape, she let her clients’ issues and constraints limit her own thoughts and ideas. She contradicted herself; even went against her own values. In the end, she got too overwhelmed and frustrated when things didn’t move forward, or moved forward at the cost of great distress to her & her team.

She asked me how I got through my days. I told her that I quit the ‘customer is always right’ maxim a couple of years back. There are just times when all the thinking and feeling hats in the world will not help me get into the shoes of come of the characters I talk to. Honestly. No friggin’ way. When wearing that blasted hat didn’t work for me anymore, I decided to kill the frustration by looking at the situation from fresh eyes. I realised that whenever I consciously decided to do the best I could with what I had, a heavy load rolled off my shoulders.  Things started to change. We started to understand each other better. My customers and I treat each other like real collaborators. This view also influenced how I treat my colleagues and bosses, because they are all part of my work. Most importantly, this point of view influences my behaviour in the way that I don’t have to tell my clients or my bosses that I have their best interests at heart. I don’t need to say it when I already behave it.

It worked for me – maybe it can work for some of you too. Give it a shot- replace ‘the customer is always right’ with ‘I’ll do the best I can with what I have, and I’ll do my best to go the extra mile’. Think it now. Picture that in your mind now.  Take note of any goosebumps. Take note of any nausea too, because you’ve got to mean it, and your body will tell you if deep down, you’re not ready for this yet.

When you’re ready, go back to the list of the 18 things your customer told you they needed to have and without them the world will be blasted to smithereens. Discuss & decide with your team about which ones to say yes AND/OR no to, and find the best way to deliver something that best meets the customer’s needs & wants (they’re not necessarily the same thing and you know this too). May not work all the time because we deal with humans and we all have different conditions surrounding our decisions.

At least it’s better than going insane from expecting different outcomes from the same actions, over & over. Don’t you think so?

Good luck!


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