Is the customer always right?


It's a long-standing axiom that the customer is always right. But is it true? No. But since customers make the purchase decisions, they'll always have the last word.

Typically the "customer is always right" topic heads straight toward dealing with customer complaints. This is not my intention. I want to focus on sales – specifically what customers want versus what they need. In many cases these can be two completely different things, but if the customer doesn't get what he wants, the sales relationship can dissipate quickly.

As I said, the customer has the last word. They write the checks, so they're really the ones in charge. Unfortunately, too many sales staffs are taught the opposite. In what has become a ubiquitous mindset, salespeople are told they must take charge and tell customers what to buy and when.

Sad, really. Manipulative selling tactics might work short term, but their ripple effects breed discontent.

What ought to occur is a directive for sales people to focus their energy on understanding the customers' situation, and then work to tie perceived wants together with identified needs so that the two are one and the same.

This happens best when salespeople are totally tuned in to the customer, asking a boat load of questions about what problem the customer is trying to solve or what progress he's trying to make. What's worked well in the past? What hasn't? What's working now and what's not working now?

Only after the problem or the goal is fully understood should a proposal or a product demonstration be made. Not before.

But herein lies the trick. Sales people first need to remember that what the customer wants and what they need can be two different things; and second they need to deal with it accordingly or they can lose the relationship. The dilemma happens differently in retail than in business-to-business, but both have the potential for lost business.

Let's first look at business-to-business. Take two prospective customers who both describe similar workplace problems. After identifying the issues, similar proposals could be made to both companies. Yet while one is eager to integrate the full solution, the other says "No, I don't want all that" and opts for what equates to a band-aid on a gaping chest wound.

In such cases the vendor is faced with several options. Either be a purist and say "no, I don't do band-aids," or hope that even minor improvements will help and say, "Okay - I'll do it."

Both options present risk, and left with these two options it's not much more than a dice game.

But I'd like to suggest that a third option is available, and that's working to tie the wants and the needs together. It's an education process, but it must be done respectfully, not haphazardly. A business-to-business sales person must strive to connect client needs and wants without stepping on any toes or egos in the process.

Retail sales have to guard against a different mindset. In retail, a high quality product may be a company's pride and joy, but consumers may want something slightly different from what's being offered. In these situations companies must be careful not to get in the way of customer requests.

Such was the case with Starbucks, whose high quality coffee has turned an entire generation into coffee snobs. But according to the book Why Smart Executives Fail, this snobbery created a blind spot early on among the company's top execs.

Weight-conscious customers wanted skim milk for their lattes, which appalled the execs. They were convinced the consumer needed a quality coffee drink, despite the customers (those folks with the money) wanting something that maybe didn't taste as good, but was easier on their waistline. But sanity finally prevailed, and now we can order skinny lattes while Starbucks still makes a fortune.

Wants . . . and needs. We've got to tie them together.

In business-to-business as well as retail, top sales people will listen carefully to what the customer is facing, and then work hard to tie perceived wants and actual needs together. That's the optimal approach. But when it all boils down, giving the customer what they want, in essence getting it right for them, will usually keep them coming back.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.