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Archive for February, 2010

“The customer is always right?”

We’ve all heard the saying. It’s often cited as the call to service of Marshall Field’s department store in its early days. It’s also credited to Harry Gordon Selfridge, a Wisconsin native who founded an eponymous emporium, Selfridges, in London back in the early 1900s.

Among retailers, Nordstrom’s gained mythic status for its commitment to the customer always being correct. The story goes that an older gent once returned a set of four tires to Nordstrom’s. A clerk gladly accepted the return, never bothering to mention the retailer does not actually sell tires.


When Customers Get Cranky

Whatever its origins, “the customer is always right” merits rethinking today, given how much consumerism, retailing, media and marketing have evolved since the old saw was first coined.

Consider: Is your customer always right if he or she sets the blogosphere or social networks ablaze with a screed about an unsatisfactory experience with your product or service? What if their post or tweet contains only a kernel of truth? Or out-and-out fabricates facts?

In this era when brands are supposed to be in both public and intimate conversations with their audiences, you could argue that the best response to a disappointed or angry customer is no longer automatically, “We apologize. Please, let us try to make amends.”

Instead, sometimes the most reasoned response might be, “Let’s talk about this.” Or even: “Now hold on just a minute. Here’s our side of the story.”

In pre-Web 2.0 retail, to have a customer excoriate one of your tellers, clerks or sales reps one-to-one, or even in front of a cluster of onlooker, was one thing.

Today, to have them take your product, service or brand to task in a forum where thousands, maybe millions, might listen, join in and thereby form lasting perceptions, would seem to be quite another.


A Question of Candor
I got thinking about this recently after seeing, of all things, a Domino’s ad. The TV spot opens with a focus group attendee torching Domino’s pizza crust. “It tastes like cardboard.”

The ad proceeds to feature company execs owning up to, and pledging to improve upon, what customers are telling them is crust ala cardboard and sauce akin to ketchup.

I thought about it again last week when I heard a U.S. president — speaking “with all due respect to separation of powers” — call out the black-robed Supreme Court (seated directly in front of him) on what he believed to be a misguided ruling affecting financing of political campaigns.

Then, mere hours later, that president entered the political lion’s den of a Republican Congressional retreat to engage in an impromptu Q&A on policy and politics. Judging from the news clips, the exchange was civil but unvarnished. And the president gave as good as he got.

Maybe herein — somewhere between Domino’s admittedly bland crust and a politician’s surprisingly crackling comments — lies the new, Web 2.0-era credo for maintaining balance of power in brand-audience relationships.

Candor.

The customer isn’t always right. It’s simply not possible. Because no human being is always right.

And because when a customer is wrong, or only half right, the media mountaintops from which they can shout simply have too much amplifying power and reach.

The customer’s not always right. The customer is always deserving of listening, earnest conversation, and a respectful tone.

But sometimes, in a Web 2.0 world, brand and customer might have to agree to disagree.

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What do you think: Is the customer always right, no matter the era or the circumstance? Would welcome your comments, insights and case examples.

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