ETN: Simple Answer? No-one is “Always Right”

Simplicity is great. If humanity has one over-riding achievement, it’s the ability to take the previously unknown, simplify it into a concept, give it a name and make it forever understandable.

Intangibles like democracy, supersonic flight and reality TV are not in any sense naturally-occurring yet appear as concrete a fixture of our times as the Classical elements of earth, water, air and fire. The difference is that, as artificial constructs, there must have been a form of process to produce them and define them. Consider the case of ‘Customer Service’.

From the Middle Ages, sellers eagerly cited the Common Law edict of Caveat emptor (literally, “buyer beware”) as protection against costly, unwanted liability. The seller was seen always to be in the right and the buyer merely a challenge to the status quo. It’s not a particularly fair rule but it’s simple to establish and enforce

Basically, the seller’s honesty was assumed and if everybody agreed the buyer had almost no legal rights, no-one should ever be disappointed by any outcome, no matter how disadvantageous. Exhorting sellers to accept any moral imperative to ‘do the right thing’ was like expecting night not to follow day. Rightly or wrongly, simplicity won the argument.

Some customers are more right than others

As often seems to be the case where regulation fears to tread, commercial pressures show the true willingness of business to adapt. A shrug and a “you know the rules” may protect sellers in the short term but in a competitive environment, it doesn’t take long for buyers to decide they’d rather not deal with those who simply hide behind convention when things go slightly awry. The issue becomes thornier still for the seller when one considers that people have a habit of telling each other about their experiences – and bad news tends to travel faster than good.

The winds of change were about to bear down on Caveat emptor, spectacularly so, in the late 19th century, with the rise of the American retail magnates, specifically Marshall Field, to whom that most quoted of business quotes is most often attributed: “The customer is always right”. His radical principle took hold elsewhere – most notably at the new hotels of César Ritz in Paris and London. The ethos of the new consumerism could not have been more opposite to Caveat emptor. Revolutionary as the words were, it was however just another simple rule, with all the efficient inaccuracy of the last one.

The deification of the customer assumes their honesty and integrity – hardly a practical concern when selling haberdashery to well-heeled ‘Gilded Age’ citizens of Chicago or afternoon tea to aristocrats in Piccadilly. Transfer the principle of infallibility to a wider audience (including a less-than-scrupulous element) and it doesn’t take long for sellers to retreat to the safety of a legally-upheld disinterest in satisfaction.

Essentially, selling guidance became: ‘legally, don’t give in; commercially, don’t hold firm’. It couldn’t be more bi-polar or contradictory. Only in the years since the Sale of Goods Act (1979), was the matter necessarily complicated, encouraging greater professionalism. For buyer and seller alike, simplicity may have been the best way to achieve clarity throughout the last millennium but it finally seemed to meet its match in the information age.

Simplicity saves troublesome fact-checking, awkward judgement-calling and irksome justification of unpopular decisions so the attraction of a “rules is rules” approach is understandable – yet we live in a world of limitless, ubiquitous competition, we eulogise our brand values and venerate “customer relationships”. Customers are promised not just ‘satisfaction’ but ‘delight’ and have their own social platform, a potential for well-worded complaints to ‘go viral’, however disingenuously they represent the facts of their experience.

The net result is that upholding consistent, mutually-fair customer service is more difficult today than it’s ever been. Some simplicity helps ensure consistency but clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach guarantees that sooner or later, the wrong outcome will be reached.

There will (and should) always be judgement calls. As in judicial process, consideration must be given to things like previous good character and mitigating factors. I recommend you ask yourself these three questions. They’re based on my B2C experience but they’re just as relevant in the B2B world – although perhaps with bigger values:

  • Who am I arguing with? If you’re at risk of making an enemy, know who it is. It’s up to you to decide how much more leniently you’ll look on your best customer than, say, someone you’ve only had one purchase from (that you know of). What’s their social following? More particularly, do you have evidence that this customer has a history of disputes? Picky people are one thing, serial fraudsters are another. Decide on that before deciding to what extent you are inclined to give them what they want.
  • What will it cost me to make this problem go away? Are you arguing over a small amount just because you can? Yes, it’s been 29 days since the purchase but is it worth having an argument over a five-pound item? Even if they’re in the wrong, or being unreasonable, how much money is at stake today, compared to what you’re likely to lose by not investing in a “gesture of good faith”? It’s better to lose the battle and win the war.
  • How often does this problem occur? Even a small monetary loss to resolve a particular complaint can prove unsustainable if it’s likely to recur frequently. You do have to worry about setting a precedent and today’s five-pound concession could easily become a thousand-pound problem if you’re not alert to the issue (begging the question of why your team or your supplier hasn’t addressed it previously). Conversely, a hundred-quid hit can seem like an outrageous amount to get you out of a situation but if your analysis shows a sequence of failures on your part that’s truly a once-in-twenty-years perfect storm of ineptitude, you should probably pay it gladly and trust your attempt to resolve the matter amicably is acknowledged and valued by the customer.


  • Look out for my next column, about the way that BETA seems to divide opinion, even among those who don’t appear to know enough about it, in the October issue of the ETN, out October 1st.