When the Customer Is Not Right

We’ve heard this mantra thousands of times: “The customer is always right”.

This is the basics of any customer support. However, when it comes to understanding what a customer wants, this approach doesn’t work 100% of the time. Customers always know where they want to be, what they want to accomplish at the end of the project. The problem is that often they aren’t the experts on the process necessary to get there. Worse, they might be wrong in assessing the tools and technologies they need to get accomplish these goals in the most efficient, practical and ultimately cost-effect way. This is when you, as a professional, can and should help them choose the right direction.

Just imagine that someone comes to a mobile phone shop and asks for a very specific model of a mobile phone. An average seller will pick up a phone from a shelf and close a deal. This is exactly what happened to a friend’s son. He decided what phone he wanted; went to his cellular phone carrier in uniform, on his way back to base, and they sold him the very phone he wanted. The problem was, it was the wrong phone for this young man. He was a combat soldier at the time, taking his telephone with him out into the field under harsh conditions. In a relatively short period of time, the battery was close to worthless, the screen was smashed.

When he went back to the phone company, they admitted it was an “office” phone that needed gentle conditions. The customer wasn’t right about the phone he selected and the service provider failed. He made the sale, but lost credibility.

A good seller will ask a buyer the right questions to understand the buyer’s needs and see why the buyer wants this specific model. Is it because the buyer researched various options carefully and knows exactly what he or she wants? Or maybe it’s just because this model is fancy and the buyer wants to follow the trend? Or maybe it’s because the buyer only really heard about this specific phone and is not aware of other options?

After a short talk, a good seller can realize that the buyer actually needs a rugged, simple model that will stand the test of harsh conditions, or perhaps what is needed really is a fancy handheld electronic dictionary and a GPS device. Did the buyer select this model after learning that the phone has an excellent dictionary and the required GPS features? Or is it the glamour of the phone that calls out to the buyer?. Other, better solutions might be available, and it’s the job of a good seller to find and offer these solutions.
Some customers approach our company with a very specific requirement just like in the example of the dictionary/GPS phone.

Personally, I have had many  customers tell me: “We want to implement the document management system X. How much will it cost?” or “We want to move to DITA. What costs are evolved?” The question that I usually ask is why they think that the document management system X will solve their needs? Have they ever considered alternative products? Do they need a document management system at all?

A customer doesn’t need to be an expert in a subject matter (this is why they hire us!). Moreover, the customer may be wrong in assessing tools and technologies to be used. It is the job of a supplier to ask the right questions and offer the right solution. And perhaps most difficult of all, sometimes, you have to have the courage to say “no” to your customer because if you don’t, by the end of the project, they are going to be blaming you and wondering why you didn’t clarify it for them.

This is what makes the difference between an average supplier and a good one. Average suppliers sell products. Good suppliers provide solutions.