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If I was asked to recount all the ways the customer is not always right, I might run out of page space on this website. That enormous project with the twelve-hour turnaround mandate? That’s wrong. The not-so-subtle freebie service request, just because? That’s wrong. There’s a huge sign on our wall when you walk into LeadMD that reads “Perception is Reality.” It’s cliché, it’s obvious and most of all, it’s completely true.
Right and wrong is sometimes very black and white but often it’s extremely gray. So when you operate a professional services business and you’re faced with the common adage that the “customer is always right,” you have to add the proverbial “but.” I like big “buts” and I cannot lie. Not the derriere popularized by the prophet Sir Mix-a-lot, but the qualifier of logic that often comes at the end of a sentence. The customer is always right but rarely the first time.
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In the service-based technology industry, we see customers behave in all sorts of erratic and mystifying ways to get what they want because, well… it’s worked. Time and time again, companies reinforce bad customer behavior by attending to every request, no matter how absurd. Customers aren’t accustomed to being challenged, so they try to get away with more and more until the business has to throw up their hands and admit they can’t deliver on their promises.
This is even more important with service oriented companies. We need to weed out the “yes-man” mentality from the inside first. Organizations with a culture of agreement are fundamentally set up for failure since ideas will become homogenized and critical thinking will fall by the wayside. As a leader, you have to learn how to be comfortable hearing an opinion that’s different than yours, and embrace the prospect of actually changing your mind. Better decisions get made this way.
In service-based businesses, employees who never push back (tactfully, of course) against their peers or management are likely going to act as glorified order takers when dealing with your customers. Excessive people pleasing is never for the good of the team — it’s actually incredibly selfish behavior. If you’re blindly saying yes to every request, are you really listening to what the customer is asking for? Have you determined if that’s something your company is capable of delivering? Who’s right? If you have the knowledge and you believe in your process, then good news: it’s you.
Customers aren’t usually challenging themselves. They’re understaffed, under-resourced, moving fast and looking for things to get done. And service businesses can often feel that pressure of time forcing them into kowtowing to demands. But customers and clients secretly want to be challenged by people they trust. They want the advisors they deal with to prove themselves as leaders and experts and to validate their decision in choosing said advisor in the first place.
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Customers want uncommon output. A little education with their project delivery. The reassurance that they’re doing business with people who know their stuff and stand by their values, never over-promising and under-delivering. Because, really, customers make common requests most of the time. What value are you really providing if your service is common as well? There’s nothing exciting about this level of interaction and dullness turns to resentment on both sides over time. If you never push your customers out of their comfort zones, they’ll get bored and you’ll get replaced.
I’ve had some really hard conversations with customers, knock down drag out highly emotional conversations that escalated from the offer of a dissenting opinion to an all-out stop in work. I’ve hopped a plane to leverage an eye-to-eye conversation when our suggestions just weren’t being heard. Service-based companies need to decide early on how much they are willing to compromise on pretty much anything. My personal rule of thumb is that compromise is a deadly slope and the diligence to reinforce that anti-compromise mentality is draining, and absolutely critical. We don’t allow customers to redline our process. We know what it takes to create success in digital marketing, that’s our role. Besides, when you allow a customer to write their own scope of work, word gets around that you’re a pushover and once you have that reputation, you’re sunk. Instead, we’re confident in our process — and once we have identified the outcomes a customer is looking to achieve we are extremely diligent in the avoidance of cutting corners. Initially customers may not agree, but they will respect your conviction and you’ll probably earn their business. The most important factor in a well-balanced value position is being willing to walk away from a bad deal.
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Here’s a hard lesson for younger entrepreneurs but one that will give you incredible peace of mind if you stay true to it: not every customer or client will want to work with you. Once you’ve come to terms with this, you will be liberated. You won’t have to be the one backtracking, doing 360s and looking desperate. The business you want will start coming to you. The customer isn’t always right, but the right customer is always worth it.
You’ll know you’ve found the right customer when you get pushback to your pushback. There’s nothing better than a client understanding your methods but also questioning them, challenging you to defend your position. When done respectfully, what seems like a disagreement actually turns into a highly collaborative long-term partnership. These are the customers who recognize your role as an advisor and are hungry to learn from your expertise. With these customers, you have permission to be the most authentic version of yourself and your company in every interaction — they deserve more from you and you’re thrilled to give it to them. But you’re never entitled to this relationship off the bat. You have to earn it, and only the customer can decide when that occurs.
The words “no” and “why” can be your best friends in the services world. Trust your instincts and snuff out potentially dangerous clients before you agree to stipulations you cannot meet. Embrace your role as adviser and teacher and you’ll give your customers more than they ever anticipated getting from you. There’s nothing wrong with that.