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The Customer is Not Always Right by Karl Wiegers

PearlsFromSand-coverPerhaps you’ve patronized a business that had a sign on the wall saying something like: “We have only two rules. Rule #1: The customer is always right. Rule #2: If the customer is wrong, see Rule #1.”

It’s fashionable to say that the customer is always right, and I’ve seen people do some pretty silly things because of this attitude. But in reality, the customer is not always right, and we all know it. Sometimes the customer is irrational, belligerent, or flat out wrong. We are all customers, and most of us are also suppliers of products or services, so we have experience on both sides of this issue. I prefer to say, “The customer is not always right. But the customer always has a point, and that point should be understood and respected.” As a customer, you may not always get what you want when you have a need or a problem. But you’re certainly entitled to have the service provider or the merchant take your concerns seriously and try to understand them so you can achieve a mutually satisfying outcome.

In some cases, it’s downright dangerous to assume the customer is always right. When you go to see your doctor because you don’t feel well, you are a customer and the doctor is a service provider. These days, there’s a good chance you’ve researched your symptoms on the Internet and scared yourself half to death. Yes, your headache could be a malignant brain tumor the size of a grapefruit, but it’s far more likely to have a more benign cause. Suppose a patient comes in to the doctor’s office and says, “I have a brain tumor. Please remove it as soon as possible.” No doctor is going to take a patient’s self-diagnosis as fact and say, “Sure, no problem. Does tomorrow morning work for you?” The customer has a point: he has a headache. The doctor must respect that point, then use it as a starting point to determine the real underlying problem and what to do about it.

Okay, that was a silly example, but it’s not far off. Some years ago I woke up with laryngitis. I couldn’t speak a word. I made an appointment to see my doctor, but instead I had to see a substitute physician whom I had never met. Since I could not speak, I wrote my symptoms and questions on an index card. I handed the card to the physician when he walked into the examination room. He glanced at it for not more than one second then asked, “So, what’s the problem today?” Well, I couldn’t speak! That’s why I’d taken the trouble to write up my side of the dialogue that I would normally have during a doctor’s visit and tried to present it to him. I wasn’t happy that he completely blew me off. He did not respect the premise that the customer always has a point. I never went to that doctor again.

Software development is one area in which I’ve seen people abuse the notion that the customer is always right. A software project often begins with a customer presenting his needs to a business analyst. The analyst explores the customer’s problem and writes a requirements specification that communicates those needs to other technical people, who then develop an appropriate solution.

It is common for customers involved in this kind of discussion to describe not their actual requirements but rather proposed solutions. A skilled business analyst can detect when the “need” that’s been presented is really a solution idea and will ask questions to get at the underlying problem. Sometimes the customers don’t fully grasp the point of this dialogue. They might say, “I told you what I need. Just build it. Haven’t you ever heard that the customer is always right? Call me when you’re done.” This attitude undermines the collaborative approach that is the best strategy for truly understanding a problem and then determining how best to solve it.

CustomerIsAlwaysRight-wrongTechnical support is another domain where “The customer is always right” can get turned on its head. When people call technical support, they’re already frustrated and confused because something isn’t working. Many technical support conversations just make callers more frustrated and confused. Perhaps technical support people have been trained to disregard the customer’s input because it’s inaccurate so much of the time. That is, their philosophy may be “The customer is probably wrong.” I’ve heard of people calling technical support because they couldn’t find the “Any” key on the keyboard when the onscreen prompt said to “Press any key.” Another customer complained that the computer’s cup holder was broken. Cup holder? Oh, you mean the CD/DVD drive. A colleague once told me that the tech support people in his company created a special problem report category labeled “user brain damage.” Clearly, the customer is not always right when it comes to technical problems with computers or other electronic devices.

Once in a while I’ve been delighted with customer service that went above and beyond the minimum. Here’s a recent example. I wanted to get gutter guards installed on some of the gutters around my house that frequently get plugged with tree leaves and pine needles. I researched several products and contacted two vendors to come out and give me estimates. The first vendor looked at my gutters and gave me a price quote for doing precisely what I asked for: installing his screening product on certain areas of the gutters. This vendor assumed that I, the customer, was right, and he gave me exactly what I requested.

The second vendor impressed me more. He looked at the gutters I wanted to have screened and recommended a particular product as the best solution. Next, he looked at the roof areas around those gutters and identified three problems I had not been aware of: broken roof tiles, signs of leakage, and rotted wood. Then this vendor looked at several other areas of my gutters that I hadn’t asked about having screened. He pointed out that they were full of debris and recommended the gutters be cleaned out. I felt like I was getting a good solution to my real problems, not just the superficial “Sure, I can sell you those” response I heard from the first vendor. I mailed the contract to the second vendor.

Here’s a case where the customer (that would be me) wasn’t right. My car’s brakes weren’t working as well as they should. I took the car to a muffler and brake shop near my house and asked them to replace the front brakes. I even had a coupon. When I picked up the car, the mechanic told me, “Your brakes don’t need to be replaced. I adjusted them, and they’re working fine now. No charge.” Guess where I took my cars for service for all the remaining years I lived in that city? Rather than assuming that my analysis, as a non-automotive expert, was correct, the mechanic found the underlying issue and solved the real problem. This experience gave me confidence in the company’s work and in their integrity.

I have a long history of writing customer complaint letters when I encounter defective products or services. A friend once called these “Dr. Karl Wiegers expects results” letters. Most of the time, my complaint is justified and I can back it up with facts and evidence. But not always. I once found some foreign material in a jar of peanut butter. I mailed the offending material to the peanut butter manufacturer with my request for a refund. Analysis showed that the foreign material was grape jam. The peanut butter manufacturer pointed out, “As we do not make grape jam, it is likely that this was introduced into the peanut butter by a knife that had grape jam on it.” Oops. Sorry, my mistake. I try to keep this experience in mind when I’m unhappy with a product or service. It’s important to make sure that my facts are straight, my expectations are reasonable, and this is not a case of user brain damage on my part.

The next time you’re involved on either side of a customer-supplier discussion, keep the lesson of this chapter in mind: the customer is not always right, but the customer always has a point. As a customer, you’re entitled to have the supplier take your complaint or request seriously. You should expect the supplier to ask whatever questions are necessary to make sure she fully understands your needs or the source of your unhappiness. As a supplier, show respect for the emotion or information the customer is providing to you, and don’t be shy about following up with questions to really understand the situation. It’s an application of that excellent principle from Stephen Covey’s fine book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”* Through a process of respectful collaboration, a customer and a supplier usually can reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

Want to use this article in your e-zine or web site? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it:

Karl Wiegers is the Principal Consultant at Process Impact, a software process consulting and training company in Portland, Oregon. This article is excerpted from his memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons. Visit Karl at or

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