Is the Customer Always Right?

How do you feel about your customers? The answer to the question reveals more about you than them.

The customer relationship is a two-way street and you, as the supplier, responsible for managing both sides. This does not mean that the customer has no responsibilities, but you have to watch out for the customer for both of you — it is your business and your customer after all. While many would agree with the concept, applying it is a bit illusive given the pressures facing suppliers in real life.

To the answer of the question above, yes, the customer is always right. Not only that, but the suppliers are responsible for every problem with their customers. Finding myself on the supplier side more often than on the client side, this is one of the toughest facts to deal with. Even in extreme cases that involve a dishonest or unethical client, it is the supplier’s problem and responsibility.

Every supplier is responsible for selecting the client, then managing relations. A problem often stems from setting the wrong expectations, by overselling yourself, or by yielding to stakeholders’ pressures. Even if there is no apparent mistake made on the part of the supplier, and things went sour with the client, the supplier is guilty of picking the wrong client, and for accepting to do the work in the first place.

Some people misunderstand the concept of “the customer is always right” to mean that a supplier must do everything the client asks for, whether right or wrong. This is one of the ways to fail a relationship. Sometimes clients do not know what to ask for, or ask for the wrong thing. The client is always right in his feelings, statements and behaviors. Listen to them, understand what they really mean, manage their expectations, and build their awareness. Work with them to build mutual trust and understanding. This will help them get the best out of the relationship, and is the essence of “the customer is always right.”

Selecting the client goes against the traditional view of the client-supplier relationship. Well-known business strategist Tom Peters believes that suppliers must also pick their clients, and some are not ready for a certain service. Others might not act professionally. In either case, a seller might select not to deal with a client altogether.

Firing a client is a new concept for most sellers. Some must be fired for inability to play the client role properly. Peters suggests reviewing your client list on regular basis and prioritizing them based on their importance, readiness for services, and ability to abide by professional and ethical standards. He suggests firing those at the bottom of the list. Many world-renowned companies annually fire poor performers from their clients lists, cordially of course. This puts a different spin on the way we perceive client-supplier relations.

Many western companies learned about the true client-seller relationship the hard way. Some of the automotive companies changed how they deal with suppliers based on this bad experience, and started treating suppliers as partners after they were seen as adversaries. They developed lists of “preferred” suppliers based on their competence in product development, project management, and quality. They work with suppliers long term to build a relationship that is beneficial to both sides.

Another aspect of the customer is always right is managing the customer, which includes managing expectations, behavior, attitude, and awareness. It starts from presale and continues beyond delivery.

Managing the client means eliciting the customer requirements. Asking the clients what they want is not enough because the customer sometimes does not know what he is asking for. It is the job of the supplier to educate the customer to ask for the things that really fit his needs. To make sure that the requirements actually reflect what the customer wants, demos, examples, illustrations, and clear descriptions of the final deliverable must first be reviewed during the planning stage and then throughout the project.

The supplier must treat the customer as a partner, not as a judge. If the customer perceives itself as judge then the supplier will not be able to fully serve the customer, and the goal of the exercise becomes just to deliver according to contract rather than to serve the client. Each side will try to get more for less, and neither will get full value because they are working against each other. A partnership can happen only if there is trust between the dealing parties. The best relationship is one in which both parties win.

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