I started my technology and financial management consulting business in 1994. That means I have been running it for more than 20 years. Before that, I provided lots of technology and financial consulting to clients while at a big accounting firm. I have worked with thousands of business owners and managers – big and small – who have needed help buying and implementing software and hardware to make their businesses better. With few exceptions, these clients have the same thing in common:  They may be very good at their business, but they don’t know my business.

Sure, I’ve had plenty of successes. Without them, I wouldn’t be in business today. But over the years I have made thousands of mistakes. I have misjudged people, assumed too much and paid too little attention to certain details. I have mismanaged projects, upset clients and disrupted businesses. I have cost clients money and cost myself profits. I have relied on the wrong persons and failed to listen to smarter people when I should have. I have never been sued – but came close a couple of times.

All of these mistakes have made me who I am today: smarter and more experienced about the way we do business. Which brings me to the dumbest advice I’ve ever heard about customer service.

You know it:  The customer’s always right, right? Right?

My clients do not have my experience. They are roofers, landscapers, architects, shop owners, programmers, shippers and many other things that I know nothing about. They are experts in their own fields. They know what they know. The smartest ones know what they don’t know. The ones that aren’t so smart pretend that they know what they really don’t know but don’t want to admit that they don’t know. This makes them defensive, sometimes argumentative, sometimes cynical. Because they don’t fully understand what we do, they’re nervous that we’re going to take advantage of them. We would never do that. We help our clients – whether they like it or not.

Whether they’re right or not.

This is because my customers are frequently not right – particularly when it comes to technology and financial stuff. They see things on TV, read in-flight magazines, talk about stuff over beers with their friends – and they think that’s reality. Some think that all you need to do to increase sales is to push a button or download a mobile app. They think that everything moves at the speed of light and works perfectly.  They think that their lives will be instantly better with technology because that’s what Apple, Microsoft and Google have them believing.

The truth is that technology can help them and their businesses. But it takes time. It takes training. It takes investment. It takes patience.  Most importantly, it requires listening to someone – like our firm – who has more experience. As I get older, I don’t get mellower.  I get angrier. I get into more fights with these customers. Sometimes I’ve even raised my voice. Why? It’s because I’m becoming more passionate. And confident. It’s because they don’t know and I do.  It’s because I want them to listen to me and do what I tell them to do because I want them to succeed. No, I am not trying to steal from them; I’m trying to help them. Like a parent, our job is to push our customers to do the right thing, hopefully in a way that doesn’t require yelling at them. But on a rare occasion, this pushing may result in the loss of a customer. But that’s also OK. How long do you think they would last by doing the wrong thing anyway?

The customer, particularly in my business, is frequently not right. (Experts who claim otherwise don’t know my business at all.)  The best customers accept this. They know I have knowledge and experience they don’t, and they want my guidance. The ones who refuse to listen? Well, they’re probably not worth keeping.

Sometimes they are wrong. So to me, real customer service means helping my clients make the right choice. On the other hand, not pushing back when they are about to make a poor decision seems like the ultimate disservice.

Join writer and small business owner Gene Marks each Wednesday on the Small Biz Ahead podcast. You can also submit a question for Gene to answer on the podcast.

One Response to “The Dumbest Advice I’ve Ever Received About Customer Service”

  1. David

    That’s not what “the customer is always right” means. It refers to what they want to buy and in creating demand for goods & services. It means that no matter what you want to sell them, they are right in knowing what problem they have to solve and in what they are willing to buy. It’s a demand statement not a customer service statement.

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