Improving Customer Service

Issue # 11 of 70 

John T. Self, Ph.D.
By: Dr. John T. Self

The Customer Is Always Right

Fairly brazen statement, isn't it? Everyone in the service industry has seen customers who have been wrong, sometimes blatantly wrong. But it really isn't whether the customer is right or wrong that is important. It is the attitude and trust towards the customer that is important.

One of the worst problems of the service industry is a cynicism that can seep into the attitudes of even the most dedicated people. This cynicism can negate even the best service policies and intentions of a company, and is probably at its peak when service personnel deal with refunds or returns.

Most people would agree that it is important for companies to have a refund policy. What is not so apparent is that simply having the policy is not enough. Service personnel must trust the customer and believe they are telling the truth. Ask these questions of your service employees:

  • Do your employees and management believe their customers when they return a product?
  • Do they believe their customers are basically honest? Do they believe that it is a very, very small percentage of customers who actually try to scam?
  • Do your employees get upset when someone returns an obviously used printer or flashlight that hasn't been in stock for months, complain that it is not working properly and want their money back? Do they feel challenged to prove the customer is wrong?
  • Do your managers the customer when they say their dinner was terrible and there is only a little bit left on the plate?

If the above scenarios are typically greeted with employee skepticism followed by an interrogation of the customer, then you may as well have no refund policy. The first rule of customer satisfaction is to always assume your customers are telling the truth.

With that basic assumption, interrogation is eliminated, the refund process is simplified, and your customer goes away satisfied. This policy also eliminates both management and employee stress caused by confrontation. Interrogation assumes the opposite and always achieves the opposite results.

It has been proven time and again that when companies are successful in establishing a reputation of no-hassle returns, their customers respond with loyalty and steadily increasing sales. For example, in the 80's, Chili's restaurant chain always won the Dallas Reader's Choice award for "the easiest restaurant to get a free meal with a complaint." That award translated into customer loyalty.

It's surprising how many employees simply do not understand the whys of a liberal refund policy. It is essential that it is explained to them until they fully understand and buy into it. Don't just give a meeting on attitude or customer kindness and expect attitudes to change. They won't.

Interestingly, the type of employee that has the highest propensity to develop bad attitudes the fastest are the ones who follow the rules. They feel they are defending the company with scenarios like below.

  • If you ate 98% of your meal, you obviously liked it. No credit, no refund. End of story.
  • You're bringing back this after the 30 day period? Sorry, see the sign? It says 30 days. Period.
These employees must understand that the Prime Directive is customer satisfaction. The key is to recognize who these employees are and work with them. It requires one-on-one meetings and a genuine understanding of customer satisfaction and the impact trust has on attitude.

Even though there are customers who take advantage of the system, they are a minority. The overwhelming majority are honest and expect to be treated with respect. The public knows which companies are trusting and which are not. Trust transforms the public into loyal customers.

John T. Self is a lecturer at The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Prior to entering academia, Dr. Self spent fifteen years in the restaurant industry. While in the corporate world, he worked for several chains including Chili's and Steak and Ale, and as vice president of a regional restaurant chain overseeing six restaurants with sales of over twenty million dollars. He has also owned three independent restaurants, including a comedy club.
Dr. Self has also been involved in the development of international hospitality programs. While at Golden Gate University, he started the partnership with Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China and is continuing in that involvement at Cal Poly.

Improving Customer Service #11 of 70: View all in the Table of Contents

For more customer service articles, visit the Customer Service series on the new Sideroad: Practical Advice Straight from The Experts.

Text © Dr. John T. Self, 1997,1998. Part of the original Sideroad.