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Is the Customer Always Right? Or Is the Customer Just Stupid?

Guest post by Jack Groot

Is the customer always right?

The old adage is the customer is always right. Well, what if they’re wrong? Flat out wrong. How do you handle that? Or better yet how do your employees handle that? Because they handle customer interaction on a daily basis. Everyone knows the customer is not always right. The real issue is how businesses respond to customers when their expectations are not met.

I don’t need your money

I’ve told customers I don’t need their three dollars today, I need their three dollars everyday…for the next year. Or five years. And that’s absolutely critical in the coffee business where we rely on a stream of daily regulars; Suzy who gets a vanilla latte every day at 8:40, Rick who gets a large dark roast at 7:15, Tommy who gets a bagel and a single shot espresso everyday for lunch, and a thousand others like them. We need each and every one of them to come back day after day, week after week, year after year. Gaining a new customer is expensive. Keeping an existing one happy is not only good customer service, it is just plain efficient. So what are you to do when faced with a customer who has a different understanding of what you owe them. And will you do “anything” to make sure they are happy?

What to do when a customer is wrong

A number of years ago I had one of my baristas come and get me from my office. She said, “There is a lady out front and she wants to talk to a manager“. My manager wasn’t available so I went out. She was sitting at our outdoor cafe and had a drink in front of her.

Hi, I’m Jack the owner. How can I help you?

She answered with, “I ordered a cappuccino and this doesn’t taste like a cappuccino. I know. I’ve had cappuccinos before and this doesn’t taste right.”

I asked, “Oh, I’m sorry, have you been to JP’s before?” to which she answered, ”No”.

I continued, “Well, I’m not saying we didn’t make a mistake with your drink, but it’s possible that the way we make cappuccinos and the way you are used to are different”

She was obviously a Chicago person, we get a lot of them in the summer tourist season and some can be, well, a little snooty. She was carrying on like a snooty person, but I still had to figure out if her drink was correct or not.

We make our 12 ounce cappuccino with a single shot of espresso and then steamed and frothed milk. We use whole milk for all our drinks and our espresso is a typical Italian blend with more chocolate and caramel notes coming through in the flavor of the coffee.”

“Well, it doesn’t taste right and I want to know what you are going to do about it?”

I calmly responded to her petulant tone, “Well it is possible that something was wrong with the drink and I will gladly have ZuZu (not real name) our barista remake your drink for you”.

No, I don’t want her making my drink, I want someone else to make it”

Ahh, I think we are getting somewhere. There is an issue here, but it isn’t drink quality. She’s just looking for a fight, a reason to complain, to exercise her dominance in front of her friends and is gonna pick on my barista to do so.

No ma’am” I said, “If you would like your drink remade ZuZu is a long time, fully trained barista and will gladly make your drink over. If there was something wrong with the first one we can find that out, or possibly our drink style is not what you are used to”.

I had ZuZu remake the drink and even stood and watched while she did. I carried the drink out myself and gave it to the lady. She took a drink and said it was OK. To be honest I highly doubt there was any difference between drink 1 and drink 2, but because I was both kind and I wouldn’t back down from supporting my barista, it was as though I had established my credebility and she knew it.

After we chit-chatted for another minute she said “You handled that so well”.

The moment she said that my suspicions were confirmed. I knew her way of feeling power and impressing friends was complaining at any restaurant, any coffee shop, any business she went to to try to get people to respond to her. She wanted, no she needed, to impress, to feel power, to feel in control and to feel like others were beneath her. And complaining and being an itch with a “b” was how she did it.

Questions to ask yourself

  • First, was she right or should I treat her like she was right? Well, she wasn’t right, but, I did not verbally tell her that. I would not replace a well-trained and capable barista to make her a new drink as she requested, which was my way of telling her so, but I avoided being confrontational. Some who truly believe the customer is always right may have capitulated to her demands and made the drink themselves, but I would not. She was not right, but I didn’t tell her. I just worked through the situation to try to solve her issue while maintaining a balanced attitude knowing we make mistakes.
  • Second, did she deserve a new drink? Sure she did. It’s possible she got the wrong drink or we made a mistake. And even if making her a new drink wasn’t the issue it was worth it to shut her up. Again, we make our money $3 at a time and I recognize word of mouth is everything. I’m not going to do anything a stupid customer wants, but I will go a long way to make things right. Our reputation is built on the small things everyday and we win or lose the war based on hundreds of little battles.
  • Third, if she was wrong should I have let her know she was wrong? Why? If I can win her over, even if…maybe especially if…she is an obnoxious customer and I can get her to be a good customer, I win! She will speak well of me and let’s face it we need all the positive words we can get. The numbers vary, but something like for every 4 people who have a bad experience at your place you must THRILL one person. People love to spread bad news, but good news is easy to overlook.

What is the goal?

My goal is to win over every customer, every person that comes through our door every day. To make sure they are satisfied and get what they want. Does that mean I will give away the store to satisfy a customer? No. Does that mean I will roll over and let a customer walk on me if they want? No. Does that mean I will work hard with ever customer, even the pain in the butt ones, to attempt to amicably resolve any issue? Absolutely!

Jack Groot is a coffee shop owner, educator and consultant who currently runs JP’s Coffee and Espresso Bar in Holland, Mich., The Midwest Barista School and OnTrack Coffee Consulting