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MBPT Spotlight: When the Customer Gets It Wrong

“This isn’t what I ordered,” the customer plainly states to her server after he presents the beautifully arranged heirloom tomato salad. Confused and concerned since he prides himself on getting it right, the server inquires about what went wrong.

His guest informs him that she wants “all red and round tomatoes – like the ones at the supermarket.” OK ... But those aren’t heirloom tomatoes.

Wanting the customer to be happy, the server removes the salad from the bill. But is removing the item from the bill really the right thing to do? Absolutely not. The customer is wrong. And I’m not saying what the customer wants is wrong. It’s just that she’s wrong to expect an heirloom tomato salad to fulfill her desire for a red, round tomato salad.

I know what you’re thinking. Anyone who works in a service industry has been told at least a million times the customer is always right. We as service providers (and, if we’re honest with ourselves, customers) know that that’s not actually true. Sometimes customers are wrong and brands need to stand their ground. And there are times brands do:

• The nuclear family may look different than it once did, but its purpose and values haven’t changed. Brands like Nikon, Cheerios and Honey Maid get this and stepped up their advertising to show families aren’t defined by gender or color, despite some current and prospective customers’ protests.
• No one likes the airline industry and most everything about flying domestic stinks, but there are times when the client is wrong when it comes to dealing with airlines. I appreciate that JetBlue issued a life-long ban on a customer who made and encouraged threatening protests over a fee. 
• Props to this Kansas City restaurant for believing in the dining experience, humorously defending it and adhering to their no takeout policy even in the face of an angry Yelp review.
• If a theater has a no texting policy, customers need to adhere to it. Alamo Drafthouse had an impressive response to a booted texter and her colorful objections left in a voicemail which became the basis of a PSA against talking and texting in theaters.

At first glance it seems like the customers in all these stories are either dumb or simply jerks or entitled (or all three). And sometimes that is true. But defaulting to the “dumb” or “jerk” or “entitled” excuse doesn’t get at the root of the problem or explain why the client is in fact wrong. It also prevents us from providing whatever service we offer, which is what we really want to do because we enjoy it and it keeps us employed.

So after we’re done labeling people, what are we left with when we’ve identified the customer as being wrong?

As service providers, we’re left trying to realign expectations. Because that’s really why (or when) customers are wrong — their expectations are out of whack. They want red, round tomatoes and you pride yourself on serving heirloom tomatoes grown at the local family farm. They want a Maserati, but can only afford a used Hyundai.

The fact is most businesses do a pretty good job communicating what they offer, what they don’t and what they’re capable of delivering. They’re also pretty good about establishing context to help level set expectations. Most want to make you happy and at the very least, meet (and hopefully exceed) your expectations. But businesses can only do that when they’re allowed to stick to their vision of how to deliver their service and therefore maintain a quality standard and protect their brand.

So, how do you set expectations for customers? Here are some tips to help you stand your ground:

• Set clear and consistent guidelines: Own your brand tone and the brand experience.
• Internal clarity and alignment is critical: Have policies and make sure everyone within the organization is on board with them.
• Be real when dealing with people: Professionalism rules, but if you can have a sense of humor like Alamo Drafthouse, then go for it.
• Know there may be fallout: There are some people you will never, ever be able to please. Make sure you’re positively delighting everyone else so the naysayers won’t be as dangerous.
• Don’t be afraid to address the situation directly: Social media is a great tool to explain yourself.

Clearly defining what your business is, how it delivers its service and what it values will help your customers understand what they’re buying.

As strategist at independent global brand consultancy Monaco Lange, Zanfardino unearths insights for organizations to help them see new value and possibilities for their brands. She’s worked with clients including Girl Scouts of the USA, BASF and Blackboard. Prior to Monaco Lange, she worked as a freelance educational consultant.