Customer service vs. irrational client demands
By Adil Wali , 24th Jun 2011
Product Management

Trying to deliver great customer service without bowing to irrational client demands takes a somewhat tricky balancing act and some courage. The truth is, the customer is NOT always right. At end of the day a lot of companies have adopted this sort of thinking:

“The customer isn’t always right, but you want to do what’s best for everybody in the aggregate – for the good of the many.”

The reality of the situation is that no matter who you are – even a brand readily known for its exemplary customer service like Zappos – you still have scarce resources. You don’t have unlimited customer service people. That’s why I think the secret is to try and focus on what makes everybody’s life the best.

Good customer service has become the price of admission

Excellent customer service is paramount to the success of any business. At one time, customer service was so bad, if you did well you could really stand out (back then bad or mediocre service was considered ‘the norm’). A number of companies proudly proclaimed great customer service as their competitive advantage. And I tend to agree with that, even today, when I think of a company like Zappos.

Today, you really can’t start a business without strong customer service from the get-go. You can’t succeed at something new if you have lousy customer service. It just won’t work. If you want to get in the game, excellent customer service is what you have to do because that’s what people have come to expect. So instead of a competitive advantage, it’s become the price of admission just to get into the game.

Not all customers are created equal

You want to treat every one of your customers with respect and courtesy – that should never change. But not all customers are created equal. I’m not saying they shouldn’t all be treated with some baseline level of respect, but the people who are your best customers – you need to recognize that. It pays to scale up in how you treat people based on what type of customer they are.

A good example of this is Southwest Airlines, who treats all customers with respect, but whose best customers get special attention and the most respect (through the Southwest Rapid Rewards program).

Crazy customers do exist, but it’s all about the net effect they have on your business. The balancing act is you’d really like to provide even your crazy customers with good service, but if you do it’s going to end up at the expense of good quality service for someone else.

There are those ‘toxic’ customers who don’t treat others like human beings. Always treating your customers with respect doesn’t mean you have to entertain their level of ridiculousness. I don’t want my customer care rep on the phone for 4 hours literally getting berated. That rep. is not going to be on the top of their game for the rest of the day to provide great service to the good customers.

True, some customers will be worse than others. Just make sure the worst don’t become a liability – where your net customer service score (or Net Promoter Score I’ve discussed in the past) is worse because you’ve spent too much time on the irrational few.

If you go out of your way to tailor your business too much to the squeakiest wheels, you end up under serving those who are not squeaky wheels.

What to do about it

The customer is NOT always right: there will always be those who take advantage of companies. That’s just the way it is. But you need not let that bring you down.

Find ways to curb the downside risk. Have ways to flag those customers. Have outs to be able to say, “This customer is someone we know who is negatively impacting our team, so we need to have ways to cut the engagement down.”

Companies still have the right to refuse service to ANY customer. You want to avoid discrimination, but beyond that you should be able to say, “We need to cut this off.” (Check with legal first if there are any doubts.)

Refusing to bow to irrational customers isn’t profound. It’s obvious. It’s just that not everybody does it.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Adil Wali. I became a Microsoft certified professional at age 14 and started my first web development company. That led to a career as a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and startup investor. I got my first “real job” at 33, and I’m now a FinTech executive with a passion for the markets.