Let's say this right up front so there's no misunderstanding: The customer is NOT always right! But, they are always the customer. So if they are wrong, let them be wrong with dignity and respect. It's OK for customers to be misinformed or make a mistake.
However, sometimes customers are not only “not right,” they are abusive and disrespectful toward the people who are trying to do their best to help them—your employees. I decided it was time to resurrect this concept after hearing the same story three times in a week. It's an old Southwest Airlines Co./Herb Kelleher story that I first heard years ago.
The short version is that a passenger kept writing the airline about how unhappy she was. She didn't like the boarding process, not having an assigned seat, a small bag of peanuts vs. a meal and more. After a number of letters, one of them finally made its way to Mr. Kelleher, the co-founder, now-chairman emeritus, and former CEO of the airline, who took the time to respond to the disgruntled customer. He wrote: “We're going to miss you. Love, Herb”
This simple response sent a clear message to the customer: We appreciate you, but it's not working out. It also sent a message to the employees. We appreciate you, and we value you to the point that we're willing to put you ahead of the customer. Some customers simply aren't worth doing business with.
When I use that line at some of my speaking engagements, it's almost always met with applause. In other words, it's OK to fire a customer—certain customers.
Abusive and disrespectful customers can bring down the morale of the company. They can take the fulfillment out of the employees' jobs. They can suck the positive energy out of the culture. They put employees into a bad mood. And they can make it bad for the next customer. A company's culture that evokes the “customer is always right” rule is just fine until the customer is wrong to the point of being abusive.
Then it creates a dilemma for the employee. It gives a customer the advantage in that they can bully an employee, pushing them to a point of being very uncomfortable. It makes an employee apprehensive about what is the right or wrong thing to do.
It also can take away an employee's dignity and self-respect, causing them to lose respect and resent his or her manager and even the company. So get comfortable with the idea that the customer is not always right and some just aren't worth doing business with. It's OK. Toxic customers may be bad for you and your company's health.
Shep Hyken is a St. Louis-based customer service expert, professional speaker and New York Times bestselling business author who periodically contributes columns to Tire Business. He can be reached at 314-692-2200 or via his website at www.hyken.com. Information on his customer service training programs is available at www.thecustomerfocus.com. This piece originally appeared in his e-newsletter, The Shepard Letter.