People have a natural tendency to try to make difficult things easier. In quality management, this tendency is revealed by many attempts to turn fundamental principles into easy-to-remember slogans. One of the oldest, and perhaps most misleading, is "The customer is always right." Although numerous articles and books have been written exploring this idea in-depth -- and even refuting it -- both the slogan and the belief persist.
It is not too hard to think of many examples where the customer is not always right. Some customers want to pay a price far below what the seller feels is fair, perhaps even below the cost to the seller. The seller has no reason to agree with these conditions for the sale. Other customers abuse the firm's employees.
There are other cases where the customer asks the supplier to do something that is unethical or even violates the law. Sometimes customers ask suppliers to share proprietary information about competitors. These customers are definitely not right.
A leading temporary staffing organization keeps meticulous records about employee safety. They refuse to provide staffing help to customers with poor safety records. They explain the reason to their customers, using data comparing safety records with similar jobs done elsewhere, and offer to help their customers improve safety. Many of the customers accept their help because they did not even know how bad their safety record was.
Business literature is full of stories where creative companies ignored market research in developing a new product. Perhaps the most famous example is Sony's development of the Walkman. Customers clearly told the market researchers they did not need or want a small radio to listen to while walking around. Akio Morita decided the customers were wrong and persisted with his idea of music available everywhere.
Many years ago, when I bought my first new car -- a German luxury model famous for its engineering -- I was convinced I knew exactly what I wanted: top-of-the-line styling with a diesel engine. The salesman suggested I talk with the engineers at the factory. The engineer patiently explained why they would not put a diesel engine in that model and convinced me that the car was far too heavy for the diesel engine to give good performance. I drove that gasoline-powered car for more than 20 years, thanking the engineer almost daily for not agreeing that the customer was always right.
There are many other examples where customers feel that they want something, and what they want just isn't right. Sometimes providers can persuade with convincing arguments. But other times they just have to refuse to do what they know is wrong. It is better to lose customers right away than to provide something that doesn't meet their needs and creates long-term dissatisfaction or even a dangerous condition.
Why, then, is the phrase "The customer is always right" so pervasive? It is a natural way for companies to try to break the ingrained habits of many employees that internal rules and procedures are more important than serving the customer. It is a way for companies to try to force employees to stop and ask themselves, "Is there a way I can actually do what the customer is asking?" It is also a way of challenging the common belief that the company's own designers and engineers always know best.
One of the most powerful new concepts in business management is customer-supplier partnerships. By working together for common goals, we often can create a far better result for both customers and suppliers. When we understand that neither the customer nor supplier is always right, we can find solutions far better than either of us would have come up with on our own. And these solutions need not be compromises. True partnering leads to win-win solutions.
Recently, a leading aircraft engine manufacturer was challenged by a major customer. The customer's quality test results differed from the manufacturer's results. During the investigation, the problem became clear. The customer insisted on the right to purchase and install electrical and cooling system components from another supplier. The manufacturer had to install a different electrical and cooling system to do the final tests and then to remove them for shipment. The test results with these components were often better than the results after the customer had installed the new components.
The manufacturer asked the customer to have the electrical and cooling systems shipped directly to them, and they would install them for free. This saved the manufacturer the cost of removing the electrical and cooling system used in the tests, and it saved the customer the cost of installing them. The engines arrived ready to install in the aircraft, and the quality was exactly as required.
About the author
A. Blanton Godfrey is chairman and CEO of Juran Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.