PR Briefing: The customer is not always right

There’s an old myth that the customer is always right. Not true!

Of course, customers should always have rights — after all, it’s their money that’s keeping us in business. As the customer, they have the right to have their reasonable requests accommodated. (The key word here is reasonable.)

Yet business owners have rights, too. If a customer’s request goes against what you know to be right or could jeopardize your professional reputation, turning down the business is reasonable and appropriate.

The question is: when does the risk outweigh the request?

Recently, two of my colleagues went to an elegant restaurant to schmooze a big client. They sat at their table and ordered an expensive bottle of wine. But they had difficulty reading the menu because the restaurant was so dimly lit. One of the women politely asked their waitress to turn the lights up slightly so they could decide what to order. The waitress passed the request along to the owner, who told my colleagues no, because the restaurant’s ambiance would be disturbed if she turned up the lighting.

Her solution was to bring the group a flashlight to share. Now, keep in mind, my friends were trying to impress a VIP by taking him to a fancy place. Imagine how mortified they were as the client was hunched over his menu, in the dark, trying to read his menu with a flashlight. You get the picture.

Was their request unreasonable? I don’t think so. Needless to say, this trendy restaurant lost some customers that night.

Most business owners have encountered many requests from their customers, some completely reasonable, and some – well, not so much.

A friend of mine works at a chic Seacoast boutique that sells beautiful – and expensive – clothing. A customer recently walked in with a dress she bought two years ago, and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t return it. When my friend politely explained that they couldn’t accept a dress that was purchased so long ago, the customer threw a fit.

After causing a huge scene, she declared that she’d never shop there again. That’s a threat that the staff, I’m sure, was glad to accept.

Another customer was mystified when my friend wouldn’t take back an expensive piece of baby clothing that didn’t properly fit her DOG. She bought this beautiful outfit, from an exclusive designer, and brought it back covered in dog hair. And, yes, the customer was shocked that the store wouldn’t accept her attempted return.

Some decisions seem more black-and-white than others. For instance, it seems reasonable to have a store policy of not accepting merchandise from two years ago, or, say, covered in dog hair. But some decisions are in a murkier gray area.

Good advice

My agency does stunning graphic design work, and we pride ourselves in developing visually appealing pieces for our clients. We work closely with our clients, incorporating their requests into the designs we create.

Recently, we designed collateral materials for a client, after discussing the project parameters. We presented several lovely options, and they asked for major changes to one they wanted to pursue. We made the changes, recognizing that a design that we like may not appeal to everyone. When we showed them the revised version, they asked for even more changes. And we had many more rounds of this cycle.

While we strive to please our clients, where do we draw the line? While we’re growing frustrated, I can assure you they are, too.

We do our best to accommodate our clients’ requests, but at some point during this long, frustrating cycle, we should have cried “uncle.” In hindsight, there were too many people involved in the decision-making process, and it was impossible to please them all.

But it has been so ingrained into us that “the customer is always right” that our staff bent over backwards to make everybody happy.

It is OK to say no to a customer, but it’s important to do it with finesse. If you explain your reasoning with sound, rational thinking, it will soften the blow of your message.

“I’m sorry, but our policy is that clothing must be returned in two weeks, so we can continue to offer our customers the latest styles. We appreciate your business, and hope you understand why we can’t accept something that you bought here two years ago.”

Any customer worth keeping appreciates the effort you’ve put into trying to maintain their business, while protecting your own. They’ll also admire you because you don’t waver from what you know to be good advice, just because they’ve challenged you.

It’s important to be accommodating, but it’s also important to protect your company’s reputation – and the sanity of your staff. Trust me, no one wants to pick dog hair out of couture.

Laurie J. Storey-Manseau owns StoreyManseau LLC, a Concord-based, full-service marketing firm. She can be reached at 603-229-0278 or Laurie@Storey