The Consumer Is Always Right. Even When They’re Idiots.

Bear with me here, because it might seem at times like I’m taking six different positions, often contradictory, at the same time.

Here’s the audio version of this article for your dining and dancing pleasure.

Anyone who takes my copywriting course knows that I have a problem with the saying, “the customer is always right.” Especially when it’s said by freelancers and people in the creative services industry, like writers, producers, illustrators and the like. If you’re in retail, the customer is always right because they know what they want. Most chefs, if you order a steak well done, will give it to you well done while cursing you under their breath, because if you’ve decided to ruin a perfectly good cut of meat by overcooking it, that’s your prerogative. I say “most chefs” because I know a few – and actually employed one – who will refuse to cook a steak beyond medium.

But if you’re a person in, for example, an ad agency or production house, the customer isn’t right. The customer is signing the check. And the customer is signing the check because you are right. Same reason they sign the check for their mechanic, or their doctor. Those people get paid for their expertise. And the person who’s writing a commercial should feel just as comfortable as a doctor or a mechanic in telling the consumer they’re wrong. Doing something the client’s way, even when you know it’s not the best way to do it, is lazy. It’s abdicating your responsibility as a professional. And it virtually guarantees that somewhere down the line, you’re going to lose that client because the work didn’t generate the maximum possible results.

With that having been said, it’s important to know which hills you should choose to die on.

In my media career, I spent about thirty years doing morning radio. Early on in those thirty years, I was lucky enough to have a man named Paul Cugliari as my Program Director. It was my custom every day to stop by Paul’s office for a post-mortem on that day’s show, and to work on ideas for future promotions. As I got to his door one day, I heard him say, “Well, sometimes Neil just rubs people the wrong way.” Being an egomaniac, I had to lean into this one a little. Turned out Paul was on the phone with a disgruntled listener.

Let me pause for a second here to address disgruntled listeners. And disgruntled viewers. And disgruntled social media followers. When you’ve spent a career in media like I have, including many years in some the biggest markets in both the US and Canada, you’re fooling yourself if you think everybody loves you. Some people love you, sure. Many people are just aware of you. But some dislike you, and a few even hate you. In my current role as a one of two talking heads on a debate show on a news network in Canada, part of my job is to take a firm position on a controversial news story, and be prepared to defend that position. Ten minutes into last week’s show, a viewer tweeted. “Go f— yourself, bootlicker.” What you learn quickly is that even when people who watch, read or listen to you express seething rage and hatred, when you get home your wife still loves you, and hopefully your kid still thinks you’re pretty cool. So it’s virtually always a case of Water, meet Duck.

Back to Paul and the disgruntled listener. Now that I was present, he was talking about me in front of my back, and having a good time doing it. But wait a minute – from listening to his side of the conversation, it sounded like he was agreeing with this listener. At one point, he said, “I know. To be honest, every once in a while I have to shut him off. But then I come back because I love the music.”

This was my boss. Talking about me.

To his credit, Paul was also defending me in small ways. He asked the listener if they appreciated a particular charity event we did every year, where I was kind of the “poster boy” for a local organization. They said they did, and Paul grinned, saying, “So he’s not all bad. He’s just an idiot sometimes.”

When he hung up, he very correctly pointed out to me that if someone is upset enough to call on the phone, or write a nastygram via email, their mind about you is very likely made up. What they don’t want, and likely won’t be very receptive to, is to be told they’re wrong. They’re already upset. Let them be upset. Or in the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

What Paul did brilliantly was to validate the listener’s position, and make them feel heard. He was even able to find something about me the listener liked, that might earn me a second chance. But at no point did he tell them they were wrong.

Before you engage with a disgruntled consumer, whether they listen to your podcast, eat at your restaurant or ride in your taxi, think about this: What if you prove to them that they’re wrong, and you’re right? What do you get then? Are you any further ahead? Was there anything to gain? Or did the debate / argument / lack of validation simply creative too much negative momentum?

Paul could have told my morning show listener that they were wrong. They would have hung up feeling even more negative, coupled with the idea that the radio station didn’t care about the audience’s feelings. Instead, they came away from the interaction feeling positively about the Program Director, and maybe even a little more positive about me. All because Paul decided that the customer was right.

Even when they were obviously an idiot.

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