A Few Thoughts on Customer Service

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.

  • http://joshuawagneronline.com/ Josh Wagner

    I definitely do not like that phrase. The customer is not always right. Sometimes they are wrong. As someone who works in a “Customer Service” department who takes calls, the customers who drive me most crazy are the ones who act like they are entitled to what they want.

    Working in places of service gives you such a respect for those who have to put up with that everyday, and it makes you think twice before blasting that poor guy pulling a 12 hour shift that happened to take your complaint.

  • http://www.chrisrouse.us Chris Rouse

    I 100% agree. I think that between what you and Josh have already said, there’s little left to be said. I hope some entitled customers show up here and try to argue that they’re always right.

  • http://www.mondayisgood.com Tom Dixon

    I guess it depends on if you want more customers or not – treat the customer like they are always right (even if they aren’t) and you will end up with more customers. Treat the customer like you are doing them a favor to let them be your customer, and you’ll have fewer. There is a reason people really do LOVE Publix and hate most of the airlines or cell phone carriers.

    The key for a company that wants to operate as customer focused is to empower its employees to treat the customer well. Let the cashier use her judgement (up to a pre-set limit) to override a price or violate a “rule” if it means the customer leaves happy.

  • http://charleshutchinson.com Hutch

    Not sure if this is on-point but, Customer Service ALWAYS reminds me of my days in PC local desktop support at a large bank.

    As I came up through the technician ranks, the mantra was always, “Solve the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible”. The belief was that the bank is loosing money if the employees are unable to work. After the service, the client would receive a “client satisfaction survey”. In the survey YOU will be graded (judged) on your knowledge, speed of service, politeness and over all Customer Service. Those were the good days. To be considered a “successful” technician, you were required to build relationships with your customers and have some people skills to get a good survey.

    TODAY – there is no LOCAL desktop support because it’s considered too expensive and a luxury. As many help issues as possible are automated. If you CALL the help desk, you are charged a premium AND your call is routed “off-shore”, compounding the difficulty and length of time for resolution. Customers that WANT fast support are either forced to pay a higher monthly support fee or are said to want “Cadillac service at Nova prices”.

    I agree with Tom… if you want to be considered valuable to those that pay your “paycheck”, give great customer service… the customer IS (or should at least be made to feel) that they are right.

    Sorry to be so wordy. It struck a sore spot.

  • http://www.daddym.ac Noel Coleman

    @Hutch & @Tom – what you’re saying is true IF you are operating in a business that has mass numbers of customers which have very limited ability to cause real disruption to the operations of the company. For example, Publix can give their tellers that kind of power because:

    1. They know that statistically the % of time this happens is low,
    2. Giving customers this “right” doesn’t cause any real operational issues with the store, and
    3. They’ve planned for this in their pricing – i.e., the collective customers are paying for that “right.”

    The challenge is when you begin to have much, much larger customers that can wreak havoc on your organization. Remember the 80/20 rule? 20% of your customers will produce 80% of your volume? Well, this applies to the discussion. 20% of your customers will produce 80% of your problems as well. Sometimes it is actually better to cut those problem customers free. Doing that lets your employees know they are worth more than a few bucks which frees up your employees emotionally and mentally to provide outstanding service to the customers that aren’t causing problems. (That doesn’t even address the financial hit you take from problem clients.)

    The issue is that you can’t create a false dichotomy by saying your motto should be customers are always right or your motto is we don’t care about the customers. Like most things, it depends. Ultimately the point is you have to know the value you provide, the rules of engagement you will set and then determine when someone breaks those rules of engagement if they are worth the pain it causes. (Sometimes that answer is yes, others no.)