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Published on April 12th, 2012 | by Janine Popick

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The Customer Is Not Always Right

This article by VerticalResponse CEO and founder Janine Popick originally appeared on Inc.com.

I know some of you who just read this headline are clutching your proverbial pearls, especially if you’re in the business of serving customers. And really, we’re all in the business of serving our customers, so I don’t really believe this headline, either … for the most part. Let me explain.

I love listening to everything our customers say about our self-service online marketing tools, including new features they want and changes they want to see. It only helps my business. I try to instill in everyone that works here at VerticalResponse that going above and beyond with our customers is important.

Since a big part of what we do is helping small businesses create and send email marketing campaigns, there are a few essential things we must deliver on in order to have happy customers: 1) Ensure that our website and online tools are up and running fast for the thousands of people who use them everyday; 2) Ensure that our customers know how to use our features; and 3) Most importantly, ensure their email campaigns are delivered to their subscribers’ inboxes. We work day and night so that all this is running smoothly during a customer’s experience with VerticalResponse.

But every now and then, someone’s experience isn’t perfect, through no fault of ours. We once had a customer who we worked diligently with to make sure he was going about his email marketing campaigns in the proper way. We cleaned his lists, made sure he was sending email only to those who requested it, and kept a close eye on people who were complaining that they were getting emails when they didn’t request them. Repeatedly, this customer disrespected our requests and kept attempting to send questionable email to questionable recipients. (I’m sure you’ve all gotten emails in your inbox like this.) So inevitably, we had to ask him to leave our services.

That’s right, we “fired” a customer.

Here’s a note from this customer, “Gloomsale” (name changed to protect the guilty), to our very hard-working email delivery group:

As CEO, I have a $7-fig salary and well connected … You don’t. My time is valuable, yours, less so. Different levels. … Should I blog and rant about this all over the web and stamp my CEO on everything? Would that get VR more customers or less?? Be smart, don’t F w/ my time.

Some of you might think it’s never appropriate to call a customer out. But in this case, I did, and I don’t think he was prepared for it since I haven’t heard from him or seen anything published about us as he promised. I politely emailed him back and told him that we didn’t agree with his email practices and that our team went above and beyond to help him, but he didn’t reciprocate our goodwill. And I reiterated that we just wouldn’t be able to make it work with his business.

Why did I do it?

  • This customer was abusing our service after we tried to work with him for months
  • My team works hard and they don’t need to be belittled by someone who touts that he has a seven-figure salary
  • Your employees need to know you’ve got their backs

I think that our team did the right thing by continuing to be polite to this customer and kill him with kindness. But they gave me the opportunity to decide, as the business owner, if I wanted to have a say in this exchange. I can guarantee you that my team was pretty excited that I took the opportunity to stick up for them and the company. No business needs to be abused by the customer. They’re not always right.

Do you have an experience where your customer wasn’t right? Did you call them out? If not, why?

© 2012, VerticalResponse Blog. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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About the Author

is the CEO and founder of VerticalResponse.



26 Responses to The Customer Is Not Always Right

  1. Liam Kunj says:

    Nice post. I doubt the guy had a 7-figure salary, but a 14-figure salary would not excuse this. I have wrestled with dropping a client whose practices I believe will reflect poorly on my business. I don’t like doing it.

  2. Nancy McNamara says:

    My favorite, the customer is not always right story, is this. I had a new employee who had a customer who wanted a refund for an item they returned and could not understand why we would not refund since their check had bounced. They were nasty and gave us negative publicity. It is sometimes hard to always keep a positive attitude and error on the side of the customer but I know that I have complained in the past and subsequently determined that I was wrong. I try to calm customers down and I have had customers email and apologize many times for being rude, but there is a limit to what we will do. The line is not always clear cut. We do see that sometimes a customer will learn what you will do and take advantage of it continuously. There are people who have the goal of getting as much as they can for free. I have this personal thing, that if I have a customer who has, in my opinion, been more than nice about a situation, I will do more for them then they expect or ask. I want to reward good behavior and although I will try to please a rude and unreasonable customer but I will not go above and beyond what is reasonable. For instance, if I see a review that is a 4 or 5 star but the customer said that the item was not what they expected, I may refund it anyway or send something else after contacting them or send a gift certificate. I refuse to perpetuate “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. If you are polite to me, I will do anything to make you happy. That is how I want the world to be and I will do what I can to reinforce that!

  3. Laura says:

    At a former job, the unofficial company motto was “The customer isn’t always right; sometimes the customer is an a**hole.” We all worked for barely above minimum wage, 12 hour shifts, and did not respond well when our customers blatantly disrespected or abused us. Our boss routinely worked in the trenches with us, and fully supported our decision to ask customers to leave if we felt like (1) our safety or that of our other customers was threatened, (2) a potential “customer” was coming in simply to cause trouble and didn’t intend on purchasing anything, or (3) we were being verbally abused beyond just “blowing off steam.” As a result, the company has had some very negative reviews, but for every bad review there are 10 saying “Wow, as a paying customer I appreciated that the workers didn’t let other folks push them around and waste my time as well as theirs.” If you spend all your time bowing down to a demanding, rude, and abusive customer, you are not spending time with loyal, respectful, and appreciative customers.
    Bravo to Janine!

  4. Babar says:

    Reading all these comments, I get the feeling that all of you are being too nice to problem people. This does not dissuade them from doing the same to others. They should be told that they are inapropriate and nasty.

  5. Del says:

    hoorah! for people who stick up for their staff. And boo! for CEO’s who can’t contain their egos and keep their feet on the ground. Love it Janine!

  6. ID says:

    Janine, good for you!
    I love VR and I love all the tech support and resources you have for non-profits like us! Just thought you’d want to hear from your happy customers : )

  7. Wow Janine, this must be one of your most popular articles ever :o ) After having dealt with “bitchy customers” for over 32 years in business, I can definitely say that the old adage of 5% of the customers cause 95% of the problems is certainly true. On the other hand, as one of your posters mentioned, customers are people too, and most likely when they get frustrated they tend to blow off steam to whichever CSR they happen to get on the phone. In most instances, they just had a bad day, and the CSR is just taking the brunt of that whole day – very little of which usually has to do with your particular company. So, we instruct all our CSR’s to put up with practically anything from an irate customer, except cursing and personal attacks on the CSR. Then a Supervisor will get on the phone and try to rectify things. If that doesn’t work – then we go back to the 5% vs. 95% theory – and we normally give them their money back and ask then (politely) to take their business to a company they feel can help them better than us !

  8. Jon Bjork says that putting a notice of unreasonable on a customer’s file helps the customer service rep.
    In dealing with CSRs, I’ve found that whenever there is a problem, I tell the one that I’m speaking with that I’ll need to call back. Never have I had the same CSR and the next CRS is able to do what I need done.
    Sometimes the CSR doesn’t listen. I’m glad that I occasionally do seasonal work for LLBean–world-class service and World Class CS training.
    I use LLBean’s training in my business.
    The customer isn’t always right, but you can always “help” the customer. Even “unreasonable” customers hear when they feel like someone is listening to them.

  9. Great article. We have terminated several contracts with clients over the years when we realized that the client had unreasonable expectations. Typically unkind communications were a big part. The hardest aspect is to not take it personally and to realize that in business there will be a tiny fraction that are nearly impossible to please – or at least in a reasonable manner. We had one of these rare, difficult clients post their personal experience with us in a review of our book on Amazon which was totally inappropriate, but apparently within Amazon’s policy. We found that very sad and mean-spirited. We always learn from the experience and it makes us extra thankful for the many delightful, respectful clients.

  10. TSG Publishing says:

    I respect your decision, but calling a customer out publicly is never a good idea. Sure there are times when customers are dead wrong. There are times when they vent venomous frustration at you. There are definitely times when it is appropriate to call it quits. But then, let it go. Quietly move on. There is no need to try to justify our actions by demonizing people.

  11. Leah says:

    Well done! Executed with grace and professionalism! And dignity I might add! Good job!

  12. Heidi says:

    I recently had a customer who agreed to receive product updates via email, then failed to check her email and missed an important update. She screamed at me for having left her out of the loop and accused me of minimizing my mistake which, at this point, I can only assume was choosing to do business with her. As a word-of-mouth business, her ill will didn’t help us but I just couldn’t bring myself to apologize to her for her own failure to take responsibility. Sometimes awful customer behavior just sticks in your craw!

  13. I offer household record keeping software via my website, http://www.Habitudes.info. One of the record keepers, a chore calendar, is free when you sign up for Habitudes.
    I ran an ad with the headline “Free Online Chore Calendar.” A customer wrote “You should be ashamed. There is nothing free here.”
    I felt really bad. I wrote back and gently explained the offer again, as it was explained on the preview page she reached when she clicked on the ad. Some of my customers are elderly or don’t understand what “software as a service” is, but I’m always available to help via email or phone.
    I’m certainly not ashamed!

  14. Ken Hayes says:

    Kudos to you! I’ve had to ‘fire’ customers in the past and it’s never been easy or fun – and you always run the risk that it damages your future business, relationships with other clients, etc… but what it comes down to (at least for me) is whether ‘doing business’ with them is profitable – to both parties. If your staff spent all this time with one customer, they were taking time away from other customers… so the physical, emotional, and mental effort expended on behalf of this one particular customer made him ‘less profitable’ and potentially other customers suffered because Gloomsale was taking up an inordinate amount of resources. At that point, you are well within the rights to say “thanks, but no thanks” and move on to other customers. At the end of the day – businesses exist to make money. If we didn’t make money, we might as well close the doors and go home.. so if a customer is costing you more than you’re making, ‘firing’ them is a viable option.

  15. Jon Bjork says:

    You definitely did the right thing in firing your customer. With the customer service group that I oversaw, we had a flag in our CRM database for “Unreasonable” that any CS Rep could attach to a customer record. It gave the Rep a bit of empowerment in an otherwise tough position.
    “Unreasonable” wasn’t enough to fire a customer. As in your case, the customer had to be abusive to a Rep to be fired.
    We actually had a procedure in place that all Reps knew about, and fortunately we only had to use it about four times:
    We’d print out the history with the customer and draft a “fire” letter that was courteous, but firm. Then we’d take it to our President, who backed us up with his signature.
    Better yet (though somewhat cruel on our part), we had received a box of our competitor’s software to our business in error. (We tried to return it, but they said keep it.) So guess what we used our competitor’s product for?
    Yep. Along with the letter from the President, they received a complimentary competitor’s product. We just didn’t want to leave even our worst customers without a solution to their problem.

  16. Cynthia says:

    I work with customers via email and over the phone every day. Many of them are absolutely not right, most of the time.
    However, if the customer is reasonable, kind, and level-headed with me or my other employees while discussing an issue, I’ll go out of my way to work with him/her, make things right, and then some!
    If a customer approaches me or my staff in a condescending way, uses profanity, or is completely unreasonable, I will absolutely call him/her out and enforce my policies til the cows come home.
    I would rather lose one angry customer (who is likely to cause trouble in the future), than lose one who is level-headed and treats me and my staff with respect. The latter is probably a person I would want to deal with again anyway.
    Though mistakes are made, we are only human after all, I think it is important to remember that the person on the other end of the phone line is usually not at fault for the issue at hand.
    Treat others as you wish to be treated. :)

  17. Joshua Hensley says:

    Nice article. I love Customer Service, it’s what I do, I’m a people person but I would have to say I’d react in the same manner as Ms. Popick and back up my ee’s while not letting a client ruin the reputation of my company.
    Well done.

  18. I have been a proponent of this type of business for years. While it’s always good to increase and grow your business it should not be at the expense of the employees and the company business ethics. There is always someone who wants something for nothing, and at the expense of someone else.

  19. anonymous says:

    The first job I worked after college was in a furniture store. One day, two “customers” sexually harassed me while I was working the showroom alone. I asked them to leave the store and not come back. The fact that my boss supported my decision showed that he cared more about me than about a sale. As a result, my loyalty to the company increased and I worked harder for them. I wholeheartedly agree that sometimes, you need to place your employees over the customer.

  20. Meredith says:

    You can’t please everyone. And for the 10% that won’t be happy (or uphold their end of the deal) no matter what you do – you’re more than justified to politely tell them to “take a hike.” His response was completely inappropriate in every way, but in dealing with the public, you will always find a few that don’t have the business etiquette standards that you do.

  21. ER says:

    Insightful post, Janine. Your commitment to your employees is as honorable as your commitment to your customers-I think you made the right call. Businesses don’t need to spend precious resources on the wrong partnership, especially when your client is being unprofessional.
    I wonder why a 7-figure CEO is working on the nuts and bolts of an email marketing campaign anyway? It’s much better suited to a 5 or 6 digit marketing manager (wink).
    Keep up the good work!

  22. Ginny says:

    Way to go Janine!!
    In this time when we are so conveniently insulated from each other by cars, computers, and phones, it’s easy to forget that the people we are dealing with are just that, PEOPLE.
    In my business, in the fitness club world, I would train the staff to know how to assert themselves against bullies when diffusing the situation didn’t work.
    Once established, the customer base acclimates to this level of mutual respect, making a synergistic and happy environment for all.
    As I would remind the staff “we aren’t ER doctors, no one is going to die in the next 2 minutes, there is absolutely no reason for someone to be screaming at you.”
    So we have indeed fire some of own customers. Customers who would have been better off spending their money in anger management classes. The best part of all is the shocked look on their face, as if saying “whhhhat??? but I”M the customer!

  23. ResuMAYDAY says:

    As someone who has struggled numerous times with VR’s system: the change in templates; drafts suddenly disappearing; not having good access to customer service; the system inexplicably charging me twice for one transaction…I too have felt surges of frustration and anger. The good thing is that you do seem to have good customer service reps on your team – and when I was finally able to get a hold of a live person, they went out of their way to fix my problems. However, it’s not always easy to get a live person to assist; there is a very tangible brick wall between the customer and the problem-solvers. I have to wonder if this guy was sifted through too many non-human channels or non-helpful channels, to the point where he was pushed over the edge. Dealing with an impossible-to-navigate and unmanned help center can leave a person feeling like they are very unimportant to the company collecting the money. While it’s obvious this guy has an above-average amount of blowhard in him, perhaps he felt he needed to go to this level to get someone’s attention.

  24. A. says:

    We follow a similar practice. We go above and beyond to make our customers happy, but if someone continuously abuses our system and our employees, we make it clear we don’t need their business.
    We have amazing customers that deserve the time some of these extremely rude people take up.

  25. The best critic for our products and services are our customers. They are the user so they know what works and what does not. Engaging with them is the best way to get answers. Asking the right questions is also important to get the answer you need.

  26. Why The Customer Is Not Always Right. One risk when doing a CRM project is giving the client EVERYTHING they ask for.

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