The customer is not always right

The customer is always right has been preached as the secret to customer satisfaction for many years. It many cases it is true and many companies need to swing the pendulum from their attitude of indifference or arrogance to be more compassionate and customer centric. But there are limits.

Here are some examples:

1. When the customer is asking for something illegal, immoral or unethical.

As an example, if an electrician is asked to wire something that breaks the ‘electrical code’ dictated by the government, this would be an example of something that would be acceptable for the electrician to say no to. It  would be dangerous to personnel (unsafe), could be considered illegal (civil and criminal penalties imposed), the electrician could lose his license,  immoral because you will be wronging an innocent person with injury and unethical because the electrician would know it is wrong.

2. When the customer is asking for something that puts your company’s employees at risk.

I had a hole in my roof caused by the wind storm that tore off a wind turbine. My roofer explained to me that sending someone up on the roof, at this time (it was raining), was dangerous and would risk their safety. I had to wait until it stopped raining.

3. When a customer asks for something that, in the light of scrutiny, would damage your company reputation or brand.

During the financial crisis of 2008, some of the books I read, implied that the rating agencies were pushed into giving good ratings to tranches of investments that were highly risky.  After the crisis erupted, the credibility of the rating agencies took a serious hit. Accounting firms have gone out of business or forced to merge with others because they approved the financial statements of businesses that were later determined to be frauds.

4. When a customer is threatening the safety or welfare of your employees.

This is a sensitive area. If a customer is harassing an employee personally, then an organization has to take a stand. I am referring here to sexual, religious, sexual orientation, cultural, or any other diversity related harassment.  It is possible that there is a personality conflict and if possible, have someone else work with the client. But if the customer persists with this behavior with multiple employees or continues to harass the employee, then it may be better to find another customer.

5. When a customer wants products or services that are blatantly not in their best interest and has been advised otherwise.

This is a judgment call. If this is a new customer and they want to take on your product or service but plan to use it in a way that you would not recommend, then it is your duty to speak up. You may lose the customer in the process but, after being unsuccessful somewhere else, they may re-evaluate your honesty and advice and come back to you later.

6. When the customer has formed an unrealistic expectation of your organization which you cannot reset.

This is a gray area but needs to be addressed. Sometimes this is of your own doing. You have to understand what caused this and fix the root cause. Sometimes, the customer has a case of ‘selective hearing’ where they only heard some of your marketing message. Listen carefully. Maybe your marketing message leaves out what is considered ‘industry standard’ or table stakes. Did the customer have reason to expect that you would be at least the same as competition? Make sure that you have listened carefully to understand what the customer is upset about and how they got that expectation. But if you can not meet the unrealistic expectation and cannot reset the customer’s expectations, it is probably better not to be doing business with them.

7. Extremely late payers.

What if the customer has not paid you for work done or pays very late.  Take a good look at the reason for the late payment. If it is due to a dispute about the product or service, then this needs to be addressed first. I used to work for a company that found a way to deal with these kinds of customers. They would ship half the order and would hold the other half for shipment until the first half was paid. If they came back for more purchases, they had to have a ‘current’ accounts receivable balance in order to order additional products or services.

 8. When a customer wants you to do work you don’t know how to do or have to learn to do.

If you have a customer who likes to doing business with you and wants your firm to do something you are not equipped to do, due to lack of skills, equipment, finances or other factors, then it is appropriate to say no. Offering alternatives, such as a referral to another business you know, would keep the customer satisfied with your relationship even if you are unable to handle the work yourself.

What are some other reasons you or your organization would say ‘no’ to a customer? Leave them in the comments section below.


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Adele Berenstein

Adele Berenstein is an Experienced Customer Satisfaction Executive, recently retired from a Large Global IT Organization after a long productive management career including Sales, Marketing, Services, teaching and education center management and most recently, 19 years in customer satisfaction management. She turned around divisions with customer satisfaction problems, implemented measurable improvements and management systems, and implemented programs to prevent problems from ever affecting customers.

3 Responses to “When is it acceptable to say NO to a customer?”

  1. Yvonne A Jones Says:

    The customer is always right has been drummed into business owners heads for so long that many times the business owner should break the tie, say no, or fire the customer, but he/she is afraid to do so.

    You’ve listed eight very good reasons that can be applied to small business owners and solo-professionals as well as large organizations. Great post! Thank you.

  2. Adele Says:

    Thanks for your comment Yvonne.

    I believe the saying ‘the customer is always right’ has its place in trying to get business owners to put themselves in the shoes of their customers and seeing things from their perspective. So often businesses cannot do that basic exercise.

    Once mastered, there are exceptions and every company needs to think about what they are for their business.

  3. What to do with an unreasonable customer | Customer Satisfaction and Reputation Management Says:

    […] but I do have a longer list of when to ‘fire’ a customer. See the blog post titled When is it acceptable to say NO to a customer? One of the reasons that Seth did not mention,  is if the customer wants your organization to do […]

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