June 01, 2015

The Customer Is Not Always Right

Faegre Baker Daniels partner Mark Voigtmann authored the following article for the Control System Integrators Association in June 2015.

If I could wave a magic wand that would solve the maximum number of CSI problems in a single day, it would be to eliminate the “customer is always right” mentality. “Are you kidding me, Mark?” (This is you responding in case you did not know: yes, I can hear your thoughts as you read this article.) “Customer service is what our company is known for,” you are saying. “If we lose that, we lose our competitive advantage, our mojo, our raison d'être.” (OK, I realize engineers would not use that last term, French for “reason for existence,” but you get the idea. Customer service is a big deal.)

And, yes, I will admit that that “the customer is always right” mentality has been the engine driving many a successful company. Full disclosure: my own law firm in its most recent partner retreat only a month ago spent two full days talking about how we could do a better job delighting clients. So just that we’re clear: I am not arguing in favor of eliminating good customer service, including responding quickly, listening carefully, exceeding expectations and otherwise striving to please.  

What I am arguing against is striving to please the customer at the expense of your company’s rights.

Here are some examples:

  • Allowing the customer to expand the scope of the work without increasing the price.
  • Ignoring or accepting roadblocks to project success that have been erected by the customer or others.
  • “Making the best of the situation” or engaging in “educated guesses” in the face of the customer’s blatant refusal to communicate its requirements or reply to inquiries.
  • Staying silent when the customer sends an email unfairly pinning the blame for a project’s failure on your work.

Does this mean I am urging CSIs to “lawyer up,” draw a line in the sand and/or declare war in all cases? Absolutely not! However, I am urging CSIs to consider doing a better job of preserving their position in the face of customer troublemaking. While this can rise to the level of writing a formal notice letter in the right circumstance, that is a last resort. It may be sufficient to provide a “soft notice,” such as in an informal email: 

“Jason, we of course are going to do the programming for the new line because we realize it is important to the overall project, but at first glance this did not appear to be within the scope of our original proposal. What are your thoughts on this?”   

And if Jason disagrees, you might follow up with another informal, customer-friendly email: “I guess we are going to need to agree to disagree on that. But it’s important to us to satisfy your needs. Let’s punt this issue to the end of the project and try to work it out then.“

In other words, preserving your company’s rights does not need to mean endangering the relationship — just as pleasing a customer does not need to mean endangering your company.

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