What to Do When the Customer Is Wrong: How to Manage Unreasonable Customer Expectations

“Yes, sir. I’ll see what our engineers say. I know, sir.” Mike McGinty hung up the phone and sighed. Maybe he could pass the Cubbins Clockwork account off to someone else. It was either that, lose a customer, or fall into disgrace. There was no way to meet Mr. Cubbins’s requests for his new project. What a customer service nightmare.

He trudged down to Engineering to explain the request for a new, totally redesigned widget. “He claims it will work because his grandson just graduated from the engineering program at Beetleburg University,” Mike explained. “It’s the centerpiece of a new engine, some sort of mechanical book sorting machine.”

Gus Marksman, head engineer for Wendall’s Widget Works, looked over the notes and frowned. “Well, tell him he’s wrong,” he said. “It will never work. The material’s all wrong for one, and the design isn’t sturdy enough for a crank. It would snap on the first use and turn a peaceful book-sorting machine into a civilian-killing monstrosity.”

“I can’t just tell him he’s wrong,” Mike protested. “He’s one of our biggest customers. If I lose this account, I’ll be out on the street.”

“If we made this, we’d be put in jail for negligence,” Gus said. “Tell him the truth. His grandson has a degree, but no real experience. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Mike wandered upstairs and called Mr. Cubbins back. “I have engineering working on it,” he said. “I should have an answer for you by next week.” Then he laid his head on his desk and cried as the clockwork secretary whirred and clicked at her typewriter. He was doomed.

When You’re Not the Weakest Link in the Customer Service Chain

Sometimes, your customers are wrong. This seems like an odd statement for people raised on the idea that “the customer is always right,” but the fact is, we live in a world governed by rules and order. Sometimes, people are objectively wrong, and sometimes, unfortunately, they’re also your customer.

If your customer abuses your front-line staff or demands that you change the entire structure of your business, there’s an easy solution: cut him loose. You don’t need toxic customers to build your business.

Dealing with a customer gets tricky when you’re dealing with a good customer who has momentarily lost his grip on reality: the person who thinks his corporate website needs more flashing, neon-colored text ripped from 1996, or the good client who’s demanding something that he saw in a Star Trek movie.

You can’t afford to cut these people loose; they’re the very customers you want to serve. But you also can’t afford to go along with their demands – you’d destroy your own corporate reputation. To satisfy your customer while satisfying reality, you’re going to need tact, finesse, and a whole lot of empathy.

A coffee maker walked by and Mike grabbed a cup. He couldn’t afford to despair. Mike caught a cab on the corner and tried to calm down as it bumped and thumped through the streets. He got out in front of Cubbins Clockworks. “I need to talk to Mr. Cubbins,” he told the office boy. “I need more details about his goals for this project.”

Listen Up

The customer isn’t always right, but the customer is always your customer. When one of your clients asks for something that’s impossible, impractical, or just a plain old bad idea, your job is to find a way to meet his needs while steering him back towards realistic expectations. This is the hallmark of excellent customer service.

The first step is a conversation. Your customer may be saying, ‘What my website needs is more MIDIs and GIFs.” But often, customers just don’t have the vocabulary to articulate what they want. Listen to what they’re asking for, but instead of saying no, ask for the reasons behind the request. If you get an accurate picture of the thought process behind your customer’s mistake, you might be able to offer a better solution to their problem.

“It’s a very interesting design,” Mike said, “But some of our more senior engineers think it might need a few adjustments. Do you know why your grandson chose birch as a material for the widget instead of something more traditional like iron or brass? Generally, designs that combine coal fires and wooden parts tend to be a bit…unstable.”

Mr. Cubbins smiled. “Apparently it’s something he learned at university,” he said. “He wants to create sustainable designs. There’s a limited supply of ore in the world, but we can always plant more trees. So if he can design a crank with wooden parts, we won’t have to worry about peak metal! Cubbins Clockwork will thrive while our competitors toil under increased material costs. He’s really a brilliant, forward-thinking young man,” Mr. Cubbins added.

“I see,” Mike said. “So, he wants his mechanical book-shelving engine to use sustainable materials. Birch isn’t really a good fit for the job, but perhaps he can consult with our engineers and come up with an alternative?”

“Oh, no, no, no!” Mr. Cubbins replied. “It simply must be birch. We really can’t compromise on that point.”

Goal-Oriented Choices

If your client insists on an unreasonable plan of action, your next step is to try to focus them on their goals for the project. Sometimes, gentle probing can help your client understand why his current plan might undermine his long-term goals.

Pick out a specifically problematic part of the plan and ask for clarification. As you ask questions, you give your client a chance to work through his ideas on his own. Then, when he realizes that his request for more “razzle dazzle” on his website won’t actually drive more traffic, he may be willing to listen to alternate plans for meeting the same goals.

“Mr. Cubbins,” said Mike, “How does birch meet your need for sustainability? Will you be building the whole engine from wood?”

“No, we’d like to phase in the new, sustainable clockworks slowly,” Cubbins replied. “If we did it all at once, the customers might panic, and we’d lose market share.”

“So your goal is to change over to sustainable machinery without creating a panic,” Mike said. “That’s a good plan. My engineers are worried because they say that birch isn’t strong enough to withstand the forces within a coal-powered, mostly-metal engine. Will birch help you meet your goals?”

Cubbins thought for a moment. “You have a point. Perhaps, initially, we should use something like oak.”

Mike smiled. They were making a bit of progress, at least.

Experts Say…That You’re Wrong

Once you have your very-wrong client considering his choices and options in terms of long-term goals, it’s time to go looking for expert advice. You know his plan is unrealistic because you live and breathe this all day long. But something that you think “everybody knows” may be an idea that your client has never encountered before. Once you have an opening, it’s time to gently and respectfully impart a little new information.

Bring facts, not feelings, to the table. Tell him about similar initiatives that failed and why they failed. Use hard numbers to give him a sense of the cost of failure. Show him how the evidence supports an alternative solution to the plan and give a calm, reasoned argument for why that alternative solution is better than his terrible, no good, very bad idea. But do it in a positive way so that he doesn’t get defensive.

“We’re most concerned because the widget your grandson has chosen to replace with wood is a central component to his whole design,” Mike said. “That increases the odds of a catastrophic failure. In the Mechanicsburg Massacre of ’65, a central part failure caused a crank to run wild in the market and trample 37 men, women, and chickens. The makers are still settling lawsuits. In fact, the part your grandson picked has a 20% failure rate even when made of top-quality materials. It just seems like it might be better to start the change to wood with a less essential part, perhaps in one of the peripheral systems located further away from the main coal fire?”

“I said I’d let my grandson have a free hand with this project, and I meant it,” Cubbins said, slamming his fist on the table. “Now, are you going to work with me? Or do I have to start taking my business to the Spencer Sprocket Company? They understand that the customer is always right.”

Something’s Gotta Give (And It Might Be You)

There are times when your best arguments, reasons, facts and figures won’t be enough to convince your customer that he’s wrong. You’re left with a decision. Do you tell him you won’t complete the project to his specifications? Or do you go along with his plans and resign yourself to ultimate failure?

There’s actually a third, but labor-intensive, option. You can build the project to his specifications and complete an alternate project which accomplishes the same job in a better way. Sometimes, the only way to get your customer to change his mind is to confront him with an alternate reality.

Mike returned to Engineering with a heavy heart. “I couldn’t convince him to change his mind,” he said. “You’re going to have to build it both ways, so he can see the difference.”

“I can do that,” Gus said. “If we build very small prototypes, we might be able to contain the damage.” He shrugged. “Some people just can’t get their heads around these things until they see them in real life. And who knows? Maybe his grandson is some kind of genius, and his crazy idea will work.” The entire engineering department erupted in laughter, and then returned to their work.

Baby Steps

Two weeks later, Mike returned to Cubbins Clockwork with two prototypes and a very nervous Gus. Mr. Cubbins and his grandson were waiting. They examined the initial prototype. The younger Cubbins agreed that it was exactly what he’d envisioned. Gus fired up the tiny boiler and set the miniature book sorting clan loose on the elder Cubbins’s desk.

At first, it carefully sorted papers into neat stacks. Then the air filled with smoke. The machine started to run in circles. It picked up a letter opener and slashed the air menacingly as it advanced on the Cubbins duo. Gus was standing by with a large jar. He trapped the wayward machine and dumped water on it to douse its fires.

“We were afraid that transitioning a central part to wood might cause a malfunction,” Mike said smoothly, “So we also prepared a prototype based on the same design, but we replaced the entire walking mechanism, rather than the central processing gear.” The second machine performed its job admirably. “We insulated the walking mechanism from the fire with a series of reservoirs,” Gus explained. “There’s no way for it to catch fire. Best of all, the walking mechanism used even more metal than the central processing gear. You’ll have a much lighter, more sustainable machine.”

“We’ll be even more sustainable than we planned,” Mr. Cubbins exclaimed. “ Customers will flock to our brand! We’ll even be able to land some new government contracts, I think.” He scrawled down a few numbers on a piece of paper, looked at them, and grinned. “It’s perfect! Exactly what we wanted! I told you my grandson was an expert in these things!”

“He certainly has original ideas,” Mike said “He’ll be a great credit to your firm.”

The grandson piped up. “That’s great, because I have an excellent idea for a sustainable street sweeper constructed entirely from aged cheddar!”  Mike suppressed a groan. He felt a headache coming on.



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