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Are you a good customer?

My first book was Crown Your Customer. It was an early attempt to chronicle the supremacy of the customer. Your business only succeeds if your customers are happy, I wrote, and if they are happy enough to keep buying from you. Place the customer at the centre of your world, and you won’t regret it.

So my question today might seem rather odd: are you a good customer?

Do I have to be a good customer, you ask, perplexed? Is it not enough that I am a customer, period? As you have been told many times: as a customer, you are royalty, and you are always right. So you say confidently: the onus is on the business to be good, not me. I cough up the money that pays the salaries and keeps the lights on. They need to honour me, not the other way around.

There is truth in all of that. I tell every business I ever advise: excellent customer care is not optional; it is your only route to longevity as a business. But that does not absolve the customer of any responsibility in the relationship.

In decades of watching folks wrestle with customer excellence, I have to conclude that all customers are not the same. The vast majority are just fine; they play their part in the relationship with decorum, courtesy and sensitivity. They deserve the best care that employees can give them.

It cannot be denied, though: there is also another group. This small, nasty minority consists of two sub-groupings: pompous egomaniacs and crafty fraudsters. Let’s take them in turn.

The egomaniacs are those who seem to think that being a customer entitles you to be nasty and obnoxious. They bully and belittle the staff members who serve them and escalate minor failings to insane levels. Many expect personal apologies from CEOs for the slightest mistakes; some start online campaigns to foment and build rage against brands.

The fraudsters are those who have no good intentions on their side when they enter into a transaction or relationship. Instead, they come looking for mistakes and failings so that they can claim compensation; the worst ones devise complicated schemes to inflict major scams while wearing the halo of the customer. You should ditch them without a second thought.

Talk to employees on the frontlines of customer care, and you will discover that the bad group, though small, takes up disproportionate time. Many hours are expended trying to soothe egos and calm those who shout and swear. And because the customer is at the heart of the business—as folks like me have said for years—these lower-level employees often get very little support from their own bosses when the big buyers complain.

Let’s do a reality check. Being someone’s customer entitles you to expect a product that does what you pay for; it entitles you to quick and friendly service; it entitles you to redress when things go wrong. It does not entitle you to be a complete jerk. 

Relationships always work both ways. If you want warm and friendly interactions, be warm and friendly yourself. If you dislike cold and unpleasant service, don’t be cold and unpleasant yourself. Just because one side has the upper hand—either customer or supplier—that is no reason to forget basic human decorum.

The best service providers are congenial and sympathetic—even if they have a monopolist’s hold over the customer. The best customers, however, are also convivial and patient—no matter how huge their buying power. That’s what the best people are like, on both sides: humble and forgiving. A jerk is just that—an annoying and debilitating hindrance to good relationships.

I am not asking anyone to tolerate serially lousy service. But place the issue in context. Is the issue you have encountered happening for the first time? Forgive it. Believe the best, first—we are all human, and mistakes happen. Are the people on the other side trying their best? Then be patient, and give them a chance to rectify the matter. Is the poor service continuing? Still, be polite and try to point out your disappointment with courtesy. Are you fed up with a long litany of complaints? Leave. Find another provider or an alternative solution. Issuing insults and expletives takes you into the domain of the boor.

And if you are doing your best to deliver great experiences to your customers, nothing I have written here today should change a thing. Do not take this as a license to relax your standards. Do your very best with every customer; apologise quickly when things go wrong; offer redress without too much argument; learn from your errors and get better. That’s still the formula. Don’t let a few ill-mannered types make you forget the essential truth: great customer experience is still the path to prolonged success.

(Sunday Nation, 12 September 2021)

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