I grew up hearing “The customer is always right”. As someone with 2 degrees in economics, I also learned about the assumption that customers were rational. If they are rational, then they must be right. Then I started working in marketing and came to believe the customer was the most important thing to a business, so again they must be right.

From time to time I looked out into the real world for evidence of all this wonderful learning, but the evidence was often lacking. As a child I watched the adults buy and consume the products of the day, fat laden food and cigarettes. They didn’t seem good for you to me, but hey the customer is always right.

I did well in graduate school, but struggled with the idea that customers are rational. I used to argue with my professors that the pet rock was proof they weren’t rational. Self serving maybe, but hardly rational. I mean who in their right mind would pay money for a rock when I could go to the creek bed and collect hundreds for free. I thought it was not their utility that was marginal, but their rationality.

My aversion to the concept was one of many reasons that I decided against getting my PhD and instead obtained a job in marketing. For nearly 30 years I focused on customers and the idea they were the most important thing in the business world, and that they were right. Needless to say customers loved me and so I did well.

Then my wife and I decided to open our own business, in retail no less. We started with the idea that the customer was key, and always right. Now I should have been concerned that economists were writing books and winning awards by going against everything I learned and claiming customers were irrational, but I was too busy running a business and trying to please customers to notice.

My thinking on the subject has started to change however as I began to experience customers first hand and up close every day. I still believe that customers are one of the most important things to a business, and I love the vast majority of them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts about all of them always being right. I would agree that customers want what they want, and they may even know what they want, but are they always right?

Customers have the right to ask for what they want, but what they want may not be realistic. And if its not realistic, can it be right?
Like the customer that wanted to buy solid gold hoop earrings for $30. I told her that I would love to be able to buy them wholesale at that cost, but couldn’t and agreed with her that the price of gold had gotten out of hand. Yes I showed her some gold colored earrings for a little more than $30, but she was holding out for real gold.

Or the customer that tells me about an offer we had last week that they would like to still have if possible. The problem being that we have never had the offer to begin with. I asked her where she had seen the offer and she told me her friend had told her about it. I said her friend probably had us mixed up with someone else, but I would consider the idea for a future promotion, but sadly it would not be today. (I didn’t tell her “After all, the imaginary offer was only good last week”.)

Or the customer that would like me to match the price of a product we carry that she found in the mega closeout discounter for a price that is less that I paid wholesale. As a self professed good customer, she couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t match the price. So I asked her why she didn’t buy it at the discounter and she said because they didn’t have it in her size. I smiled and said that’s a shame. I wanted to give her a lesson in economics, but at the last second remembered she was the customer, and therefore right, and thanked her for considering us.

I love our customers, they are what makes the day enjoyable, if not profitable. However, I have decided to amend that wonderful saying I have always lived by that “The customer is always right” with the words “to ask.”

It helps me to sleep better.

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Written on Saturday, 05 September 2009 22:39 by Terry

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