The customer is always right.
Or is he? Is she?
Right off the bat, you already know how you feel about this polarizing topic. But follow us for a minute. Place your customer experiences to the side and let’s focus on improving customer relationships throughout this article.
Whether you’re a business owner, marketing manager, sales leader, or customer service team member, let’s dive into where customer entitlement started, what it looks like now, and how to provide solutions for demanding customers going forward.
The History of ‘The Customer Is Always Right’
This phrase was coined in the early 20th century by retailers Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field. According to this Forbes article, the intention of the phrase wasn’t to signify that the customer is, indeed, always right, but instead that the customer is special.
The saying took off in department stores, hotels, and more in the United States and Europe throughout the early 1900s, leading to the success of big brands like Marshall Field’s, Macy’s, the Ritz Carlton, and Sears, Roebuck, and Co.
At the time, serving customers well and treating them with respect was a new concept in business. Many businesses treated customers like they were unintelligent and incapable of knowing what was best for them.
This belief continued through the 1960s when it was apparent via rude, loud, and obnoxious advertisements, which led advertising executive David Ogilvy to write, “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife” in his 1964 book, Confessions of an Advertising Man.
That’s when marketers and advertisers started taking the hint from successful business owners and customer service staff – leading us to where we are today.
Working With Customers in the 21st Century
Between two-day shipping with Amazon Prime, promises made by social media influencers, personalized marketing, and omnichannel customer service, businesses are serving customers better now than ever before. But it all comes with new challenges – customers demand more now than ever before.
It’s an exceptionally American trait to feel the need to be treated special. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a touch of entitlement. It aligns well with our go-getter attitudes and the American Dream.
ZenDesk sums it up best:
There’s nothing wrong with wanting your burger to be made without pickles or choosing to leave Taylor Swift off your playlist – the problem comes when individuals want special treatment that costs society as a whole. Too often, we act in entitled ways without ever realizing we’re costing anyone.
There’s a chance that your demanding customers don’t realize that they are asking for too much. There’s even a chance that you have been a demanding customer before. I know I have – and it’s healthy to admit it. It helps humanize the experience for everyone involved.
Going back to the original intent of the phrase “The customer is always right,” how can we serve our customers well and build relationships with them without letting excessive demands get in the way?
Providing Solutions for Demanding Customers
The most difficult part of dealing with a demanding customer is deciding whether to treat them special or not. Initially, meeting their requests seems like the best way to leave the difficult situation.
The problem is that treating a customer special only leads them to further believe that they deserve to be treated special, which perpetuates the cycle. For many businesses, this can mean setting up yourself for more frustration and hard conversations later on. So, instead, here are a few best practices on how to deal with demanding customers:
Be Transparent About Expectations
Before you begin working for a customer, it’s beneficial to be very clear about what you are offering. This means being transparent about what your products do, what your services entail, what your prices are, what customer service they can expect, and how it all works.
For some businesses, being transparent is challenging because you create custom packages for your customers. For other businesses, transparency is as simple as sharing accurate price and product information. Regardless, transparency allows you to hold your team and customers accountable to the same expectations. When everyone is on the same page upfront, there is no room to ask for more.
Transparency also helps you maintain the same level of quality service across the board – just as you only sell products that meet your business’s quality standards.
You’ve heard the phrase, “underpromise and overdeliver.” Yes! What a great way to run your business. But it comes with a very important caveat – deliver the same product or service to each customer. No exceptions.
The same process goes for cost. Charge every customer the same cost for each product or service. (There is a time and place for having special member prices, but that’s another article.)
When you are able to standardize the quality and cost of your products or services and match that with clear expectations for everyone, then you nearly rule out the possibility of having entitled customers in the first place.
Be Overly Accommodating
If a customer demands more, then remind them about the original agreed-upon terms and provide an estimate that includes the additional requests. This way, you show your customer that you are happy to fulfill their additional requests while continuing to position your products or services as high-quality and worthwhile.
It’s easy to see a situation from a business perspective. Demanding customers take up your time and money, and they can frustrate your team and other customers.
But it’s equally important to see the situation from the customer’s perspective. This is what being empathetic is all about.
To show empathy, you must first truly listen to the customer. RingCentral has a few examples on how to let them know that you are ready to listen to them:
- “You’re definitely right to get in touch. Let’s see what we can do…”
- “I understand where you’re coming from and I can definitely help…”
- “Let me make sure I’m understanding you so we can get to the bottom of this…”
Once you let them know that you are listening, it’s important to show them that you understand what they are saying. You can do this by repeating what they said the problem is back to them in your own words. Then ask them, “Is that correct?”
As the customer responds, you will get closer to what the real problem is while showing the customer that you care.
When customers are upset, the best action you can do is move forward. Don’t stew on what could have been done or said, but instead, work to solve the problem.
As you dive into resolving the problem, update your customer to let them know what you are doing and how you are working to solve their problem. Keep them updated as you work, too. Even if you can’t resolve their problem, most customers will maintain a relationship with your business when you truly listen to them and actively try to resolve the problem.
Throughout this process, be sure not to promise anything you are unsure of. You don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver.
Set Your Boundaries
Every business needs boundaries. Boundaries are healthy for you and your business.
This Forbes article articulates this well:
Setting healthy boundaries is part of self-care and self-respect and should help form the base of your own personal leadership. It is being assertive without the need for being aggressive. Healthy boundaries can help you define your uniqueness and your core. Saying no assertively to a new commitment means you are honoring your existing ones. Boundaries are not just about getting what you want. It’s about you getting to live your life on your own terms.
If you’re a business owner, being able to live life on your own terms is probably one of the reasons why you got into business in the first place, which is why boundaries are so important for your life and your business.
Here are a few examples of boundaries that your business probably needs:
- Business hours (yes, even the timeframe you will reply to emails and DMs, and answer phone calls)
- Max number of clients and projects you can take on at any given time
- When and how you say “no” to a customer’s request
- Whether or not you accept emergency work
- Whether you or your customers determine the deadlines
- The types of custom work you will accept
- Return policy
- Ethics and conduct policy
- Anti-discrimination policy
Once determined, be transparent with your customers about them – either openly on your website or in the contract they sign. Then stand firm on these boundaries.
However, if boundaries are crossed again and again, ask yourself and your leadership team what the root cause could be. That may be an opportunity to modify your services to better support your customers.
At SharedTEAMS, we used to limit the number of phone calls we had with our members. We found that phone calls disrupted our team’s workflow, but our members still wanted them. So, we changed our policy on phone calls while setting boundaries for those phone calls. Now, our prospects and members can discuss with our team via phone when needed, but our members also have other forms of communication that are available 24/7.
Help the Customer Find What They’re Looking For Elsewhere
Sometimes a customer isn’t a good fit for your business – and that’s okay.
When you do everything you can to work with the customer and uphold your boundaries, but they are still unhappy, it may be time to help them find what they are looking for elsewhere. In essence, you will transition them away from your business in favor of another business that is more suited to their needs.
How you transition a customer away will depend on your service model.
For a service-based business, transitioning a client away from your business will be literal. You will explain why the current relationship with your business isn’t a good fit and then you will recommend an alternative solution for them, which may be a competitor.
For product-based e-commerce businesses, you would no longer offer that customer any sales, deals, or specials. This wouldn’t be a direct transition, but instead, by not giving specials to demanding customers, you give them fewer chances to take advantage of your business again.
For brick-and-mortar businesses, if you cannot transition a demanding customer away, you may want to remove them from your marketing lists. Then, create an action plan so every team member can respond to that customer in person, and list that action plan in the client’s file. This action plan is a set of boundaries that your entire team will follow, which will help all team members deal with the demanding customer in the same consistent manner.
Needing to transition a customer away from your business shouldn’t happen often, but you do want a plan in place if it does happen.
If you do need to transition a customer away from your business, don’t feel bad. Think of it as the last way you were able to serve that customer well.
How Demanding Customers Impact Business and Marketing Strategy
A customer’s demands aren’t always right or valid, but they do impact your business as a whole. Let’s dive into how entitled customers affect your business and marketing strategy.
Inconveniences Will Happen
Demanding customers are inconvenient. But so are your dream customers from time to time.
Minor inconveniences pale in comparison to serving customers well. But big inconveniences tear you away from serving other customers well. That’s why it’s important to set boundaries for yourself so you can tell the difference between minor inconveniences and red flags.
When you do spot a red flag customer who demands too much at the expense of your team and you need to transition them away (or they leave on their own), you know that your business is still serving people well by solving a lot of problems for a lot of happy customers.
Watch for Scope Creep
Demanding customers are pushers. They usually just want to get more bang for their buck, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. Watch out for those customers who push a little bit, and then push a little bit more. That is called “scope creep” and it slowly steals your time and energy from you and other customers.
Andrea Fryrear in Mastering Marketing Agility says, “The only way to do the right work at the right time is to eliminate the wrong work, and that means saying no.”
Say no to scope creep by setting boundaries and being transparent about expectations.
Focus on the Long-Term Goals
When it comes to strategy, the goal is paramount. Sometimes the initial actions you take don’t immediately meet your goals, but they do lay the foundation for your overall long-term strategy and success, which means your long-term goal is met over time.
Andrea Fryrear in Mastering Marketing Agility says it another way: “Once we know more about who we’re communicating with, we then make sure that we solve their problems with our marketing.”
The same holds true for business strategy.
Your customer tells you their goals. As a business, it’s important to convey the strategy behind how you will meet those goals. Without giving the customer the “why” behind the actions you are taking to meet their goals, they may demand a different approach.
For example, if your goal as a business owner is to increase sales on your website, you might go directly to paid advertising. But, upon further review from your dedicated Strategy Team, your recommended next step is to refine your website funnel before implementing ads. You shared your business goal with our team and we recommended a different strategy. We then include why we recommend this strategy. In this case, this strategy takes longer but is more effective in the long- and short-term because an improved funnel means more conversions of the current traffic you’re getting (short-term) and the ads will direct new traffic to this refined funnel (long-term).
When you focus on meeting your customer’s goals with a sound strategy, and you present that strategy to the customer, you are less likely to deal with a demanding customer.
Depending on your service structure, you may be able to implement this strategy into your marketing efforts. You can share case studies on your website and then share them with demanding customers to prove why your strategy will work. You can explain your typical approach in blog articles, social media content, and email content. These options not only educate your audience but also showcase your approach to working with customers, which will help match the right customers to your business.
There are many sayings similar to “The Customer is Always Right” around the world.
The slogan of Swiss hotelier César Ritz, founder of Ritz Carlton hotels, was “Le client n’a jamais tort” – the customer is never wrong.
The Germans use the phrase, “der Kunde ist König” – the customer is king.
Similarly, the Japanese have the motto, “okyakusama wa kamisama desu” – the customer is a god.
I think the Spanish phrase “El cliente siempre tiene la razón” and Italian phrase “il cliente ha sempre ragione” serve businesses well. They both translate to “the customer always has a reason.”
Your customers always have a reason. If you listen to customers and hear their reasoning for being upset, angry, or frustrated, and you truly understand that reason, then you can separate the emotion from the experience. You can empathize with them. You can determine whether or not your business can meet their requests.
In the end, it’s important to listen to your audience to better serve them – the whole point of your business, after all, is to solve your audience’s problems with your products or services. But, demanding individuals take time and energy away from your loyal customers. So set your boundaries, be transparent, and don’t be afraid to tell a customer “no.”
If you would like more marketing guidance, our Strategy Team can help.