Customers Are Often Wrong (2005 Apr)

by Barry A. Liebling

A number of versions of “the customer is always right” are advocated by business people – some sensible and some not. A strong interpretation of the slogan enjoys wide popularity. It is the notion that the prime mission of a business is to discover what the customer wants and to produce goods and services that satisfy these wants.

In many cases this seems to work out well. Producers concentrate their efforts on things that will sell, customers buy, and producers make a profit. However, in some cases, producers who adhere to “the customer is always right” slogan find themselves on the wrong track. It is common to hear business people complain that they are working “only for the money,” that they do not personally approve of the business they are doing, but that they continue because customers, or employers, are paying them. This is a sign that something may be wrong, and the sign should be investigated.

There is a fundamental error in the strong meaning of “the customer is always right.” The problem is that it puts the responsibility for deciding what is valuable on the customer but not on the producer. The person who provides goods and services becomes an order taker, a robot, whose job is to obey rather than to evaluate. You can be sure that when anyone – producer or customer – suspends or surrenders judgment he or she is courting trouble.

Consider some examples of producers failing to act on their own best judgements about what is valuable.

* A food manufacturer decides to use an all-natural preservative in her bakery products. She believes that customers will be more likely to buy bread that is touted as having all-natural ingredients. She also believes that if she were to use a particular synthetic preservative the bread would be healthier and tastier.

* A screenwriter is working on an action movie. The writer knows it would be right to craft the story so that it dramatically illustrates the difference between aggression that is justified and violence that is unwarranted. He believes, however, that the distinction would be lost on his insensitive movie producer – who only wants to portray gory scenes. The screenwriter abandons his efforts to achieve quality, and attempts to please his client.

* The merchandise manager of a shoe store chain knows that a particular style of sandal is especially bad for the feet and can contribute to ankle misalignment. He believes that many uninformed or foolish customers will buy the sandal – whether or not his chain carries it. He decides to sell the sandal he does not like because “people will buy it.”

What is wrong in each of the above examples is that the business professional has elected to pander to the tastes of customers who are making poor decisions. The business professionals are caught in a dreadful trap. Are they making decisions that are contrary to their best judgment, or do they believe that making good judgments is not part of their role? Either way they come off badly.

Take note that orienting yourself to the strong version of “the customer is always right” is to accept insincerity as a way of doing business. This is what some bitter carpers refer to as “selling out” – doing what someone else wants you to do “just for the money” in spite of what you think is correct.

Your primary mission in business is to create value. That means it is your job to look at the evidence, think about the facts, and engage in activities that are worthwhile. The necessity of evaluating your own actions never goes away.

Where does the customer’s preferences come into the picture? Of course, the customer is crucially important if any transaction is going to occur. You cannot sell your products or services unless customers, or employers, agree to buy them from you. Querying your customers – doing marketing research – is a worthwhile activity. But what your customers want has to square with what you believe to be valuable. Your first priority should be to assure that you are doing – or making – something of merit.

What if your customers or employers do not understand that what you have to offer is valuable? This is where you have to be persuasive. It is your job to explain the value of what you have to offer. Your potential customer may, or may not, agree to trade with you. There is always some risk of failure.

Notice that it is proper for both the producer and the customer to use good judgement. You should not blindly take orders from customers, and customers should not accept your claims without scrutiny. In a free society, where individualism is respected, everyone is “on the hook” to think about what they are doing.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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