The customer is (not) always right

JAMES ADONIS
Last updated 15:58 31/07/2012

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Of all the business topics that could be written about, among the most wearisome would have to be customer service. Yes, it's important, and yes, it's essential for commercial success. But what receives less frequent attention is the first half of that equation: the customer. In particular, bad customers.

Is there any cliché more cringe-worthy than 'the customer is always right'? Just as painful are its derivatives such as 'the customer is our reason for being here' and 'if we don't take care of the customer, somebody else will'.

Anyone who has ever worked in customer service could share examples of the types of customers that prove how fallacious those phrases can be:

    * The time-stealer has no intention of ever buying anything

    * The debtor doesn't pay bills on time ... or at all

    * The penny-pincher tries to bargain you out of making a profit

    * The complainer is never happy and loves letting you know about it

    * The oscillator just can't make a decision no matter how simple

    * The escalator insists on speaking to a supervisor for any triviality.

And there's many more, of course. The demander, the irritator, and the unresponsive. Plus the liar, the impolite, and the just plain wrong. The list goes on of customers who make it difficult to deliver even a modicum of good service or the slightest of welcoming smiles.

That's why the story a few weeks ago of Yukako Ichikawa, the owner of Sydney's Wafu restaurant, was somewhat inspiring. She imposed strict rules on her customers, but then announced she was going to close the place anyway because her diners were "inconsiderate", "greedy", and "intolerable". Many a visitor had been kicked out for not obeying her conditions of entry.

It's a common solution prescribed by countless business coaches. They urge entrepreneurs to fire their customers if they happen to be draining the business of time, energy, and money. If only it were that simple. The reality is that a lot of businesses need all of their customers, even the crappy ones.

In her book, Bad Customers: A guide to customer etiquette, author Sara Vance offers a different perspective. She makes the case that customers need workers as much as workers need customers.

She writes: "Unless you can grow your own food, make all your own clothes, fart out your own transportation (and provide whatever sources of energy it needs), and are entirely self-providing where you don't need to shop anywhere, you need us as well."

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Especially useful is her checklist of rules for customers to follow, which includes some corkers like 'Closing time means closing time', 'Wait your turn', and my personal favourite, 'Control your demon spawn'.

But here's the bigger issue: what impact do bad customers have on otherwise great employees?

There's copious amounts of research that demonstrate the positive impact that engaged employees have on quality customer service, but very few studies have been conducted on the reverse. It's quite a one-sided analysis that focuses primarily on how staff can provide better service but not on the ways in which some customers are culpable for the poor service they receive.

Anecdotally, it's fair to assume that a relentless stream of frustrating customers can't be helpful to staff morale. I recall my old call centre management days that consisted of motivating staff who didn't mind answering calls all day; it was the morons they spoke to that caused much of the consternation.

So, what do you do as the boss? For starters, create opportunities for employees to vent - not at the customers, clearly, but somewhere. Also, give staff sufficient training so they can handle any tough interactions. And don't be so quick to take the customers' side every time. Because irrespective of what the adage suggests, the customer isn't always right.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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