I’m Sorry Customers, You Aren’t Always Right

“I don’t think any other retail company in the world could do what I’m going to propose to you. It’s simple. It won’t cost us anything. And I believe it would just work magic, absolute magic on our customers, and our sales would escalate, and I think we’d just shoot past our Kmart friends in a year or two and probably Sears as well. I want you to take a pledge with me. I want you to promise that whenever you come within ten feet of a customer, you will look him in the eye, greet him, and ask him if you can help him. Now I know some of you are just naturally shy, and maybe don’t want to bother folks. But if you’ll go along with me on this, it would, I’m sure, help you become a leader. It would help your personality develop, you would become more outgoing, and in time you might become manager of that store, you might become a department manager, you might become a district manager, or whatever you choose to be in the company. It will do wonders for you. I guarantee it. Now, I want you to raise your right hand—and remember what we say at Wal-Mart, that a promise we make is a promise we keep—and I want you to repeat after me: From this day forward, I solemnly promise and declare that every time a customer comes within ten feet of me, I will smile, look him in the eye, and greet him. So help me Sam.”

Sam Walton: Made In America, by Sam Walton

What is more important your customers or your employees?

Ever hear the phrase happy wife = happy life?

Here’s a new phrase for you: happy employees = happy customers. That’s right. If you want to provide excellent customer service your employees must come first!

If you don’t read any further in this post, but pick up that nugget and take action you’ll already be leveling up your customer service.

I’ve already covered in depth how to be a dream manager and shared seven tactics to drive your employee experience levels. If you follow my lead and also put your employees before your customers you will find that when your employees are treated well they will come to work on time, have a positive attitude, and be patient and pleasant with your customers. 

The grocery store Publix is a perfect example of putting your employees first. At Publix the employees always have a smile on their face when you come through the checkout line, they will make small talk, look you in the eyes, and remember you from the prior week. The employee will ask you questions about the food you are buying and they take care when bagging your groceries and offer to help carry them to your car. 

Publix pays their cashiers and baggers $10/hour. What do you pay your customer service team members? You probably pay them a lot more, but the employees at Publix provide service on par with fancy restaurants and five star hotels. What is the level of your team’s service? Are you getting what you are paying for?

Publix has been on Fortunes best places to work for 23 years in a row and are currently the largest employee owned company in the nation. Publix employees get amazing benefits with profit sharing options, year-end bonuses, employee stock ownership and purchase plan (which you can only get access to as an employee), and a 401k with a small match.

It’s no wonder the employees highly review the teamwork at Publix. They end up making life long friendships with their coworkers.

“that speaks to the little secret behind the relationships that small giants have with their suppliers and customers. It’s generally not the people at the top of the organization who create the intimate bonds. It’s the managers and employees who do the work of the business day in and day out. They are the ones who convey the spirit of the company to the outside world. Accordingly, they are the company’s first priority—which, from one perspective, is ironic. For all the extraordinary service and enlightened hospitality that the small giants offer, what really sets them apart is their belief that the customer comes second.” 

Small Giants, by Bo Burlingham

The customer is always right… Not!

Unfortunately the customer is not always right. It would be nice if this was true, but it isn’t. And if you let a customer treat your employee’s poorly and you don’t stick up for them you won’t have any luck providing good customer service to your rational customers. 

Every once in a while you will get a customer that is in the wrong. They may be swearing, treating your team member like garbage, raising their voice, throwing product, and causing a big scene. You need to step in during these situations and take over for your employee. You do not pay them enough to put up with this type of customer. If you stand up for your team they are going to go the extra mile for you. Before calling you they will try to calm down upset customers themselves, but your team must know they can call on you when they need to. 

And don’t be the good guy and just flip positions on a company policy because the customer is making a scene. Your employee held strong on the company’s position, the customer got irate, and your employee said, “I’m really sorry you are upset, but this is the best that we can do.” The customer demands a manager. The employee says, “My manager is going to tell you the same thing I just told you.” And the customer insists they get you.

You come up to the desk and say, “What is the big deal? Just make an override for him and get him taken care of. The customer is always right!” Hah! This is poor leadership. Unless your employee is wrong on the policy, or you learn a new piece of information they didn’t have, you must back what they said. Why? Because if you don’t they will just forget about the policy the next time and let the customer get away with whatever the want. It is easier than putting up a fight and then looking like the bad guy when you just side with the customer, right?

Sometimes the customer will tell you something they didn’t share with your customer service rep.

This piece of information ends up changing the situation and your solution for them. That is when you should take one extra step and help your employee look good. 

This is when you should let the customer know you are going to look into this for them and take your employee behind the counter. Then present the facts to your employee and ask them what they think we should do. They will most likely suggest you make some sort of concession for the customer and then you can come back out to the customer and say, “Well Mr. customer, you have a friend here with my customer service rep because she convinced me that we should get this all taken care of for you today. We really appreciate your business and want to make sure you leave happy!” 

This makes your employee look like the hero in the story to your customer and you will be the hero for your employee. They will have no problem supporting the company’s policies with difficult customers, you will get called to intercede less often, and you will be empowering your team to take excellent care of your customers. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?

Make new friends, but keep the old!

I’ve spent a lot of time in marketing conversations with e-commerce companies and two metrics that are often discussed are Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) and Customer Acquisition Cost [CAC]. The CAC is the average amount of dollars the company has to spend on advertising and promotion to obtain one new customer and the LTV is the average total dollars each customer spends during their full lifespan. 

A calculation is made knowing their LTV, CAC, and margin rates that allows the brand to determine a Return on Advertising Spend (ROAS) target to scale. For example they may use this data and shoot to make four dollars in sales for every dollar they spend on advertising.

Startups are pretty good at this process and learn to scale quickly by adjusting these numbers. However, not very many spend a lot of time focusing on customer retention. How they can keep customers happy and coming back for more through customer loyalty programs, a quality product, strong branding, and great customer service.

To become iconic brands these startups must keep their old customers happy, while continuing to find new ones. When you keep your current customers happy you don’t have to work as hard to find new ones. You will get more sales for every dollar you spend because your current customers will become evangelists for your brand. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing and it also happens to be extremely inexpensive. If you work harder on providing world-class customer service you will be finding new customers every day for almost nothing. 

Customer service done wrong…

For Christmas my wife bought me two pairs of shorts from Vuori. They were the most expensive pairs of shorts I have ever owned which was okay because they were also extremely attractive and comfortable. However, after their first washing, both pairs of shorts started to fall apart! What?

I sent this email to their customer service team and included a photo of the defective shorts: 

“Love the shorts! Extremely comfortable and unbelievably fashionable. I feel good when I put them on. My favorite pairs of shorts I have ever owned. And that is saying something, as I have tested oodles of athletic shorts.

However… Upon their first washing and drying (on low tumble) the Banks Short metal fasteners on the ends of the draw strings came off… Completely tangling the draw strings in a web.

Pretty disappointed— as I was very excited about getting your shorts… My friend has been raving about them for a while now.

Is this typical or did I get a defective product?”

One week later I received a response from their customer service offering to send me a new drawstring if I sent them.

  1. Photo of the full item (unworn, lying flat)
  2. Photo of the drawstring damage
  3. Photo of the inner size tag

I did not want to spend this much time and energy to repair my brand new pair of shorts myself, so I asked for their return information. They sent me a link to print off shipping labels and send the shorts back.

That’s it. Our relationship is done.

How much money did Vuori spend to acquire me as a customer only for me to be disappointed and send back my order, never to order again? 

If they spent more money and time on a better quality product and a more engaged customer service I would have continued to purchase from their brand for years to come. See, just like you, when I find a quality product from a brand I trust I will continue to buy again and again. And I tell all my friends about the company whenever I can.

What should Vuori have done differently? 

  1. They should make a better quality product. When you sell a $70 pair of hiking shorts they should handle going through your washing machine. 
  2. When a customer gets a defective product and sends you visual proof you should replace it, no questions asked with expedited shipping and tell them to donate or toss the defective product. Make it simple and painless for the customer.
  3. Reply to your customers quickly. We expect fast service. We can shop on Amazon and our order shows up the same or next day. Customer service should not take one week, especially if you are going to offer mediocre support. If it was the best customer service interaction I had ever received, I maybe wouldn’t mind waiting one week.

Customer service done well.

A couple years ago I ordered a few pairs of underwear from Pact and selected the incorrect size. I contacted their customer service and they quickly dispatched new pairs to me in the correct size and told me to donate what I had incorrectly ordered. I packaged them up and sent them to my friend Kyler whom I knew they would fit. And guess what. He loved them! Pact not only made me a hero to my friend Kyler, but kept me happy as a customer and introduced a new customer, Kyler, to their brand. 

Vuori should learn something from Pact, but they won’t. They will continue to buy new customers even though valuable customers like me will fall away. I will continue to order my shorts from Patagonia where I have always received world-class customer service and I won’t be giving Vuori another chance. They are clearly a marketing company and not a product or customer service company.


Think of the best customer service you’ve ever received and how it make you feel. What made this experience special? One of the last places I’d ever expect to receive good customer service is at the airport, but on a trip from Detroit to Savannah I was taken by surprise. I always arrive at the airport extremely early and this trip was no exception. My flight was going to be leaving in one hour and had a layover it Atlanta before making the 45 minute flight to Savannah. Upon checking in for my flight at the the gate attendant said, “Hey you know… we could get you on a direct flight heading to Savannah that leaves in 30 minutes. Would you like that?” After being away from home for a while I was ecstatic! I ran to the new gate, boarded the plan, and made it home a few hours early. What a nice surprise!   

This level of customer service is in reach if you empower your employees and take good care of them first. Happy employees will make happy customers whom will tell their friends and keep returning for more.

I challenge you to pay closer attention to the service your employees are offering. Try performing a mystery shop by calling in to your company and asking questions. How did your team perform?

If you keep raising the bar for your customer service and never get complacent you will have customers for years to come and you will have employees that love working for you. 

Walt Disney World Guidelines for Guest Service From Be Our Guest, by the Disney Institute:

“The guidelines are summarized in seven sentences and serve a variety of purposes. First, they define behavior in terms of the guests. They create a common baseline for interaction with guests and demonstrate the elements of performance that perpetuate courtesy. Second, the guidelines communicate employee responsibilities. They make the company’s expectations for service delivery clear to new cast members and they provide a basis for accountability. Fulfilling the performance guidelines is a condition of employment at Walt Disney World. Cast members who do not use them are subject to progressive disciplinary actions.”

  1. Make Eye Contact and Smile! 
    1. Start and end every guest contact and communication with direct eye contact and a sincere smile.
  2. Greet and Welcome Each and Every Guest 
    1. Extend the appropriate greeting to every guest with whom you come into contact. “Good morning/afternoon/evening!” “Welcome!”/”Have a good day!” “May I help you?” 
    2. Make guests feel welcome by providing a special differentiated greeting in each area. 
  3. Seek Out Guest Contact 
    1. It is the responsibility of every cast member to seek out guests who need help or assistance. 
    2. Listen to guests’ needs 
    3. Answer questions 
    4. Offer assistance (taking family photographs, for example) 
  4. Provide Immediate Service Recovery 
    1. It is the responsibility of all cast members to attempt, to the best of their abilities, to immediately resolve a guest service failure before it becomes a guest service problem. 
    2. Always find the answer for the guest and/or find another cast member who can help the guest. 
  5. Display Appropriate Body Language at All Times 
    1. It is the responsibility of every cast member to display approachable body language when onstage. 
    2. Attentive appearance 
    3. Good posture 
    4. Appropriate facial expression 
  6. Preserve the “Magical” Guest Experience 
    1. Always focus on the positive, rather than the rules and regulations. 
    2. Talking about personal or job-related problems in front of our guests is unacceptable.
  7. Thank Each and Every Guest 
    1. Extend every guest a sincere thank you at the conclusion of every transaction. 
    2. Extend every guest a thank you or similar expression of appreciation as he/she leaves your area.

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