The customer is never wrong. Right?

You’ll more likely know the phrase “The Customer is always right” which was first used by Marshal Field or Harry Gorden Selfridge at the turn of the 20th century. At that time the mindset of most businesses was caveat emptor (let the buyer beware), in that context the principle helps shift the balance of power back in favour of the customer.

Herb Kelleher, the charismatic former CEO of Southwest airlines, the forerunner of low-cost airlines like easyJet and Ryanair, challenged the status quo. Herb made it clear that his employees came first. As he says “The customer is sometimes wrong. We don’t carry those sorts of customers. We write to them and say, ‘Fly somebody else. Don’t abuse our people.'”

So it is clear there are times when a customer is wrong. When they are being angry, abusive, rude, dishonest or plain obnoxious. In these circumstances the business must side wholeheartedly with the loyal employees.

So enough of the business history lessons. The context I’m keen to explore is that of my business. Delivering valuable bespoke software solutions to customers in a wide range of industries. How does the maxim “the Customer is never wrong” apply here?

Things start to get complex pretty quickly. First while the happiness of customers at any given point in time is important, it is the long-term success that really counts. We see time and time again a simple mentality of order-taking, where we ask “what do you want us to do next?”. This quickly leads to budget overruns, overly complex solutions and general long-term dissatisfaction.

So it is important, that we challenge our customers. It is important that we think about and question the value of the work we are being asked to do. We are often told by our customers that they don’t need “yes men”. But how do we know when and what to challenge? This is the art of good customer service. Challenge the wrong things day-to-day and we lose. Fail to challenge things in the short-term and risk losing in the long-term.

First I believe it is important to understand why a customer is asking our company to help them. In our case this is because of our deep technical expertise in software such as Sitecore and our experience gained from building enterprise systems for companies like easyJet, Sophos and Dyson.

We are rarely invited into an organisation to tell them how to run their company. We don’t understand the mind-set of fashion loving twenty-somethings like the marketing team at ASOS. We can’t hope to give any insight to WaterAid on how to better improve global access to safe water. So in these areas we need to trust our customers to understand their own business, listen and do our best to understand.

So to be an effective partner we do need to understand our customers as best we can. If we are to be able to challenge a customer, then we must first align our understanding of the desired outcome with theirs. Only once we have this shared vision can we make sensible suggestions. However these suggestions must always be made from the perspective of the customer, always based on their best interests, always with a balanced view of short and long-term goals.

We also need to be aware of our own limitations. Technical people tend to see the world from a rational, black and white perspective. However our customers are often creative and marketing people, who will not be able to write down a simple list of acceptance criteria, they will need to see our software in context, it will matter more how it feels than how it works.

So rather than “the customer is always right” I believe in the complex world of software development we look at some key principles of customer service.

  1. Approach each other as equals. Demand professional behaviour from both sides.
  2. Take time to listen, and understand the perspective of your customer. Be aware that what they believe is important might be hard for us to see.
  3. Be humble in areas where they have more knowledge and expertise i.e. in their business domain.
  4. Challenge the customer when you don’t believe what you’re being asked to do is in their long-term interests, but do so from their perspective.

In essence “always do the right thing for the customer”.

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