One of the very first jobs that I ever held that had an official W-2 was bagging groceries at Publix. My parents thought that I should do more than just write software and learn what it’s like to interface with real people – I thought that this was a terrible idea but I wanted to retain a number of privileges that apparently hung in the balance with my “Yes” or “No” to their request.
I said “Yes” and was able to keep my ’86 Chevy as the result. What’s interesting is that I only worked 5 hours a week, 2 shifts, one of them 2 hours long and the other one 3 hours long, just enough to make $19.86 per week which was exactly what I needed to fill up the gas tank (and buy a KitKat bar).
Publix has this mantra and business philosophy that they attempt to insert into your brain the moment you consider becoming part of their staff:
The customer is always right.
The first time I heard this I flinched a bit – I didn’t believe it was true and I didn’t like it either. I felt it gave the customer an incredible amount of freedom to do whatever they wanted and to get away with murder at the checkout line (and anywhere on the Publix campus).
I quickly learned that if I did not only believe but practice this philosophy then I would be shown the door. I remember my manager like it was yesterday, a late 40′s gentleman, squat, somewhat balding, with dark hair and a penchant for wearing clothes that have been worn two if not three times too many without a decent washing. I remember that his belt never worked and yet his shoes were pristine – I could literally see my reflection in them.
He didn’t exactly exude customer service but he philosophically believed the mantra like it was as important as breathing. His ever watchful eye (like Sauron, from Lord of the Rings) kept me in check making sure that I oozed customer service. On a bad day I hated it. On a good day I loathed it.
But I didn’t completely reject the notion about how the “rightness” of the customer and neither did I fully embrace it. What I discovered is that the customer is neither right nor wrong – the customer is privileged.
This means that the customer can be treated well as long as they follow the guidelines and intentions of the company, product offering, or service. I will treat them incredibly well at that. But, I also reserve the right to dismantle their privilege entirely (or revoke it) if they step out of bounds.
This is how I see business relationships at times as well. Everything and every relationship is negotiable to a degree. Some negotiations are easy to maneuver and make decisions on while others are painfully difficult.
For example, it’s easy to reject an opportunity to do work for someone if they offer to pay me lower than what I request. That’s easy. Done and done. It’s far more difficult to leave a partnership that’s been created for a business and startup venture and would require something to the affect of significant moral decay or something to transpire that was against the law for me to end it.
Even for myself, I am privileged to work with a number of good and decent men and women. It is an honor and I do not take it for granted. But I know that if I were to contradict their moral and ethical fiber then I would expect them to renegotiate the relationship or remove themselves (or me) from the equation.
But back to customer service as I end this post, shall we? I don’t have to forgive a customer – I instead make a justifiable and decisive business decision because it is a privilege to be a customer, not a right.