Skip to main content

Why The Customer Is Not Always Right And It’s Okay To Say So

By March 6, 2013February 1st, 2018True Stories
Why The Customer Is Not Always Right And It’s Okay To Say So

In my former life as a Creative Director in radio, we had a new client who sold blinds to homeowners. It was one of those “we bring the store to you” deals. You schedule an appointment, and this company would bring a van full of samples to your home so you didn’t have to go to the store.

This client insisted on writing his own commercial. Lovely. Instead of sending me the script, he insisted on reading it to me on the phone – you know, so I could get the full effect. Even better.

The script started something like this:

“For more than 20 years, it’s the name you’ve known for quality blinds…”

I politely stopped him and said the following:

  • The number of years that you’ve been in business is only relevant if you can prove how those years of experience make your company more desirable than your competition.
  • There’s a good chance that most of our listening audience has never heard of your company, making the first line of your commercial untrue. It’s better to assume that nobody has heard of you.
  • The first line of your commercial is a headline for the rest of the commercial. If you want to keep the listener’s attention, you should focus on how your product can solve a problem or fill a need for the listener instead of talking about your company.

That covered the first five seconds of the 60-second commercial. I let him read the rest of the script before I offered any more feedback. It was a long conversation.

About 20 minutes after that conversation ended, this client called me and said:

You know, you really took the wind out of my sails. I spent all day writing that commercial and you found a million things wrong with it. I just want to make sure you’re on board with this and you’re committed to making this work.

My response:

When I tell you why I think your approach is ineffective and offer recommendations for a new direction, that’s me being on board and trying to make this work. The easiest thing for me to do would be to rubber stamp whatever you wrote, tell you it’s great, and move on to the next client, but my job is to help you make money. I’d rather risk hurting your feelings in the short-term and earn your respect in the long-term by helping you make money.

He said he respected me for that and let me rewrite his commercial.

During the first week of the campaign, he closed a sale for more than $10,000 – for blinds. Instead of attributing that monster sale to a good commercial, a smart advertising schedule or the quality of the radio station’s audience, he claimed it was a fluke and soon canceled his advertising. He went to the roulette wheel, hit his number and cashed out. But I digress.

“The Customer Is Always Right” – Is Wrong

Maybe a better mantra would be, “The customer should always be treated respectfully.” That’s absolutely true. But let’s be honest. The customer definitely is not always right.

One of my biggest frustrations is when people “yes” the customer to death. Sure, whatever you say, as long as you pay me. That approach helps nobody. When it doesn’t work, the client loses money and you lose the client.

Sometimes the customer needs an education. And there’s nothing wrong with educating the customer. Actually, that’s a good thing.

More often than not, the customer needs an expert to tactfully explain why the customer is wrong – or on the wrong path – and a different approach is better. That’s why you hire an expert.

Wouldn’t you be horrified if you went to see a doctor about chest pain, and the doctor said, “So what do you think is causing that pain? How would you like me to make the pain go away?”

My wife and I moved into a 70-year-old house about four years ago and my education about home improvements began instantly. I had all kinds of ideas about how to improve and fix certain things, but if we used my ideas, the house probably would have crumbled to the ground.

In my case, I needed home improvement professionals to set me straight. Usually, that kind of professional was frustratingly hard to find.

The way I look at it, my clients don’t come to me to tell them how wonderful they are. That’s what mothers are for.

My clients come to me because they don’t have the expertise, the ability, the time or the desire to write content or develop a marketing program themselves. In most cases, they at least vaguely recognize the value of what I bring to the table before they contact me.

My advice to any business owner or service provider, especially in marketing, is to treat your clients with respect but have the guts and tact to tell them when they’re wrong. Always. Just be prepared to back it up with sound reasoning and offer a recommendation for a better solution.

Anyone can point out a problem, but a true professional is in the business of solving problems. If you can solve problems for your clients, their feelings won’t be hurt when you disagree with their approach. If they do get bent out of shape, they can always call mommy.

Have you ever convinced a client to go in a different direction and had the client benefit from taking your advice?

Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • clarestweets says:

    So love the first example about 20 years in business and other “benefits” we think work until we find out that they don’t. Treat the customer with respect and solve his/her problems! What a simple but so often missing ingredient to business success! Oh and BTW, don’t pretend you can solve the problem, refer them to the person who can even if you lose one sale, you will gain more in reputation and good will from the (almost) client and your referrals.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Hi Clare – It’s all about problem solving and respect. What better way to win a client for life? Thanks – Scott

  • Gary Brush says:

    The hardest thing to do sometimes is “fire” a customer. Not easy but sometimes it has to be done.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Gary, I’ve only actually gone that far once. I just try to give good advice and explain why. If the client doesn’t follow that advice, it’s ultimately their business and their money. Thanks – Scott

  • Michael Ventriello says:

    Thanks for writing this. Unfortunately senior management and the account executives usually won’t allow the creatives to take this position and usually undermine this consultative approach. The result is a hamster wheel of mediocrity.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Michael – That’s true in most cases, but I have to say that the account executives and managers that I worked with usually backed me up. They might twitch a little, but they backed me up 🙂 By the way, I may have to steal “hamster wheel of mediocrity.” Thanks – Scott

  • This is a great point of view! Many professionals are people pleasers and forget that their primary job is to really serve others with their product or offering. To do this, sometimes you have to be tactifully honest. Thanks for posting!

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Thanks, Kimberly – Sometimes that honesty is well-received, sometimes it’s not, but it’s always necessary. People pleasing isn’t always good business! Scott

  • Hi Scott,

    I totally agree, the customer is not always right, and I would add in some cases totally wrong.

    I see that with the customers I write for, for example. When they start telling me that they want 20 keyword phrases in a 400 word article, I stop them right away and tell them that it’s wrong, and then I go on explaining to them why.

    I think that just telling the customer I’ll do anything as long as you pay me is not good customer service. When you tell the customers that they’re wrong and they are smart, they can see that you care for their success and that you’re someone they can trust.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Sylviane, nothing like some old-fashioned keyword stuffing, right? Building trust is a huge part of it. Why would someone invest more money in your services if you don’t share your expertise, which is a major part of what they’re paying for? Thanks – Scott

  • One of our local businesses use a fake Donald Trump or Bill Clinton in their radio stations ads. Every time I hear one all I can think of is that you better have a damned good attorney when you get sued.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Christina, never underestimate the value of a good disclaimer (celebrity voice impersonated). Actually, they should be more worried about having money saved up when that approach fails. Such a worn-out approach. Thanks – Scott

  • Maarten J says:

    Please do your reading audience a favour by respecting our intelligence and removing these tweetherder canned-content-cookie-cutter-share-buttons.

    (edit) I was so distracted by this tweetherder nonsense that I almost forgot to mention that I do agree with your article: the customer buys expertise, not yes-nodding and yea-saying.

    • Sorry to hear that those bother you, Marteen. You’re the first person to say so. To date I’ve had only positive feedback on them – people have said they like them, people use them and many people have asked me for the name of the plugin so they can use it as well. I appreciate that not everyone has the same opinion! We do try to limit them to only 1 or 2 per post, if at all. Perhaps they were too crowded here. I’ll keep an eye on that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Maarten – Glad you agree. One of the greatest disservices we can do to a client is to tell them something is fine when we know it’s not. By the way, did someone say cookies??? Thanks – Scott

  • Scott, I love this piece and I’ve convinced clients to change direction several times, which was always good for the client and her business. I’ve also had clients convince me to give their idea a try and the conversation has always been valuable because it’s opened the door to talk about how we’ll know if the chosen tactic is successful. The reason we are hired is to help our clients with something that they are struggling with and to provide them with a real solution based on our own expertise. We do ourselves and our clients a disservice when we put our own expertise in the back seat in order to make our client feel comfortable. Our clients don’t get what they paid us for and what they need and we end up devaluing our expertise in both our own mind and the mind of our client. Thank you for an insightful post.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Hi Erica – You introduce a very important part of the equation – listening to the client’s ideas and giving them full consideration. If the client makes a suggestion that’s better than ours, we need to recognize that and go with it. The goal is to do what’s best for the client, so we need to check our egos at the door. Thanks – Scott