The Customer is Always Right . . . And Other Business Myths

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On July 7, 2014

TheCustomerIsAlwaysRightWe tend to think of business as being hard-nosed, logical, and based on facts. If we’re honest, however, we subscribe to a number of business myths. Some of these myths are actually helpful because they contain a kernel of truth. But taken to extremes, they can actually be bad for business.

One of those myths or altruisms has been with us a long, long time. Nobody knows for certain who coined the phrase, “The customer is always right.” The concept, however, was embraced by a number of successful pioneering retailers, including Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field (who famously said, “Give the lady what she wants”). It was a pretty radical idea given that many retailers of the day were often less than straightforward with customers—and the cry of the day was caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)!

Let’s give these retailing entrepreneurs their “props” and acknowledge how they changed the way business was done. They recognized that the customer was more than just a consumer. But let’s also bear in mind the fact that the customer isn’t always right. As a matter of fact, the customer is sometimes absolutely wrong.

There was another entrepreneur of the day who understood this. When queried about this concept, Henry Ford replied that if he had given customers what they wanted, they would have simply ended up with a faster horse! Interestingly enough, Ford Motor Company apparently overlooked this lesson in the 1950s when they gave customers exactly what they said they wanted: The Edsel—one of the biggest sales failures in automotive history.

How should this bit of business history affect the way that you deal with your customers today? Just because the customer isn’t always right doesn’t mean he or she is always wrong. And it doesn’t mean you should ignore his or her wishes. What it does mean is that you may have to take a little extra time to find out exactly what your customer wants or needs.

That means you can’t have a “vending machine” relationship with your customers. That’s where they select a product or service, put in their money, and get something in return. Instead, it means getting a bit more involved and trying to understand what they are trying to accomplish. Do your customers really just want “a faster horse,” or do they want something that no horse can accomplish?

Your customers come to you because you’re an expert. You understand things that they don’t. Use that expertise—not simply to give them what they ask for (because sometimes they don’t know what to ask)—but to help them accomplish their goals and dreams.

The customer may not always be right—but he or she is still the boss. Help him or her succeed and you’ll not only have a satisfied customer, but a loyal customer who will tell others about you.