Is the Customer Always Right?


Most of us are familiar with the old adage, “The customer is always right”. But are there times in negotiation when this is a commercially inefficient rule to follow?

The article was written with the help of Chris Mercer, a Senior consultant at The Gap Partnership.

Ever since I embarked on my career in sales as a new graduate, the importance of being a problem solver for your customer has always been drilled into me. I can still hear my first boss saying “Be somebody who your customers can rely on to solve their problems”. I am not afraid to say that for many years I never questioned this approach, but recently I have been reflecting – is this always the right thing to do?

Whilst flicking through an inflight business magazine last week a particular quote caught my eye:

“You’ve got to stick to your agreements, be open, honest and constantly comply with your customer’s wishes”.

With regards to negotiation, I would question much if not all of this quotation, but particularly that last section – “constantly comply with your customer’s wishes”. Is the customer really always right? Surely if they are then there’s no scope to negotiate in the first place?

One of the challenges of negotiation is that very often people go into the negotiation meeting feeling that they are in a position of weakness. To feel that you must do whatever it takes to meet your customer’s needs only reinforces that position of weakness. As a result, you can feel the need to empathize, agree or even capitulate to your counterpart’s demands. The desire to be liked is often twinned with the process of giving away value.

The desire to be liked is often twinned with the process of giving away value.

A colleague recommended I read a book which prompted me to ask an uncomfortable question of myself – “Am I as strong at selling as I think I am?” The book in question is called The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. It considers “How to take control of the customer conversation” and has enabled me to look at the selling process from a new perspective. The book advocates that the salesperson challenges their customers with surprising insights, using positive conflict where necessary, not just complying to demands as part of a strategy designed to win favour.

I recently had the opportunity to see some of this thinking in action. Last week I had a meeting with a new client. The meeting was arranged to discuss what we do, and more importantly what they do, and how we could work together to achieve better negotiation outcomes. As the meeting progressed it became apparent that they were in the midst of a current negotiation and were not totally confident in the best next steps. They felt undervalued by a long-term customer; emotional about being subjected to a tender with their competitors; and as such they felt cornered into a position of weakness where they had no option but to agree to many of their customers’ demands.

I could have agreed with their plan. I could have empathized with their perception of unfair treatment. It would have been reasonable for me to agree to their capitulate strategy…after all, it would have won them the business for another year which was their objective…but was that really the optimum outcome?

Instead, I asked some challenging questions. Did they understand why the customer was asking for these demands? Why they were using a tendering process, stripping my client of value-added capability? What was the balance of power and the mindset of the customer?

Never be afraid of providing insight to your customers, even if it could be challenging their way of thinking.

Instead of pained smiles around the table, resulting from the recognition of their unfortunate situation, I got a very different response. There was silence. What followed was a period of contemplative thought. It transpired that they had not spent any time trying to understand the other party and their needs. They had not questioned the other party about why they were adopting this strategy and had not even thought to challenge the customer on different ways to achieve better value. The customer is not always right…they might think they are, but it is possible that they have just not thought of (or been made aware of) a better way. If you can provide insight into better ways, provide challenges to the current model and/or agreement and provide alternatives that will suit both parties then your challenges are highly appropriate.

The best salespeople create positive conflict, they do not run scared from it. Never be afraid of providing insight to your customers, even if it could be challenging their way of thinking. After all, if nobody ever challenged the “way it has always been done” you would not be reading this article on an electronic screen!

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