DR. CUMMINGS: The customer is always right

June 16, 2013 

The customer is always right. Who says?

First of all, we know it’s not true. There will be many times this week when your customer will be flat out wrong. He’ll pick the wrong item. He’ll read the wrong statement. He’ll sign the wrong document, and then, of course, he’ll blame you. How can we say, “The customer is always right”?

Stew Leonard runs the largest dairy store in the world in Connecticut. Thousands of shoppers come from hundreds of miles away just to experience his fantastic service, great food and fair prices. Stew tells the story of his opening day when a woman returned a carton of eggnog and told Stew it was sour. He smelled it, even tasted it, and then turned to the woman with these immortal words: “You’re wrong! It’s not sour. It may be a little spicy, but it’s not sour!”

The woman was furious, demanded her money back, and stomped out of his store vowing never to return. This was a wake-up call for Stew Leonard. He wanted something to remind himself that the customer can never be wrong. So Stew bought a two-ton boulder and placed it near his front door where everybody could see it, and he had it inscribed with these words:

Rule No. 1. The customer is always right.

Rule No. 2. If the customer is ever wrong, Re-read Rule No. 1.

When I am face to face with my customer, I have only two things to remember: I am here, No. 1., to listen, and No. 2., to serve.

Many of us don’t listen. Our customer starts complaining about our service and we immediately make excuses. That’s not listening. The first question to ask ourselves this week is “Am I going to make it easy for my customer to talk to me, and then, am I really going to listen?

When she has a complaint, will I let her vent? Or will I cut her off after I’ve got the point? When she has a question, will I assume I know the problem and launch into the solution, or will I probe for more details? Listening takes time and patience. The next question is: how can I serve this customer? What kind of service am I providing when I tell her she’s wrong? She’s standing there in front of me, asking me for service and my tone and body language is saying, “Before I can serve you -- you must admit you’re wrong.” And, oh yeah, I expect her to pay for this.

I bought two Saturn cars before General Motors discontinued the brand in 2010, and I’d still be buying them if I could. I had read about their Tennessee beginnings and their “car-building teams,” so when I saw the first Saturn dealership open, I drove to check it out. They had their new cars on the showroom floor, and a sleek, red, two-door sports model reached out and grabbed me. I opened the car door and looked inside. I walked around and kicked the tires (that’s what you do, you know) and then I read the sticker on the side window.

A salesman walked over and said: “Would you like some coffee?”

I said: “No, but I’d like some answers.”

“Shoot,” he said.

“If I were really interested in this car, what could I get it for?

He leaned over and read the sticker to me.

“No,” I said, “I mean, how low can you go?”

He smiled and pointed at the sticker. “We don’t set our prices higher than the car is worth, and then haggle with the customer. We don’t believe in tricking you, or lying to you, or playing games with you. We’re open and above board with everything we do. We believe the customer is always right, and you can’t be right if you don’t know the facts. That’s the lowest price we can set. Now how about that coffee?”

I bought the car. When I drove the car out of the showroom window and onto the lot, all the Saturn employees surrounded my car and sang a song. The following week I received a box of candy and a bouquet of flowers for my wife. And the salesman kept in touch with me through birthday cards and holiday cards from then on.

Saturn made me feel I was always right. Or maybe I should say, “always all right.” Either way, if you want customers, this is how leaders get them and keep them.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

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