The Customer is Wrong!

What to do when “The customer is always right”, even when they are dead wrong


We all know the two golden rules of customer service – #1. “The customer is always right.”  And #2. “When you think the customer is wrong, refer to rule #1.”  The reason these rules are valid is that the customer holds the ultimate trump card, their money.  At any time in the business relationship, they decide who’s right or wrong by deciding where they spend their money.  And that is how it should be.  However, as salespeople in long-term relationships with our customers, where does that leave us when we know the customer is wrong?

Jeff had been a grain buyer for about six months and I had been his supervisor for about three months.  As we drove down the gravel road heading to see Grace, his elusive customer, we started to brainstorm our strategy.  Grace farmed about 2,000 acres of corn and beans and two years earlier had participated in our bin program.  A bin program is a great tool that elevators implement to help crop producers get a free or greatly reduced price on a bin.  In exchange for this, the producer is required to sell grain to the elevator.  It’s a great deal for everyone as long as everyone plays by the rules.  Speaking of rules, in most bin programs, they are spelled out in written and signed contracts.  As we headed to see Grace that day, Jeff had the signed contract.  The issue was, Grace had not delivered one bushel of grain to our elevators.  In our mind, there was no question that she was wrong.  As we sat down in the shop and introduced ourselves, I knew we were in for a long discussion.  Grace had her arms crossed and wouldn’t make eye contact with either of us.  She also had several others from her farm at the meeting but did not introduce them.  Tensions rose as Jeff opened up the meeting by handing her the signed contract.  She refused to take it and opened up her end of the meeting with a salvo of curse word-laden accusations at us.  To her, we were just a big corporation trying to run a small farmer out of business.  To us, Grace was trying to take advantage of the situation and get out of paying for the bin.

Things got worse before they got better.  As mentioned, Jeff and I were new to the job and we were trying to clean up some loose ends from the previous salesperson.  The bin contract with her had been completed several years earlier by the previous sales person, who no longer worked for the company.  Grace informed us that the salesperson she worked with when signing the contract told her she could deliver her grain to any elevator she wanted to.

The statement was so incredible, I couldn’t resist jumping in.  Normally when coaching salespeople, I try not to jump in.  I help a bit and I contribute, but mostly I’m there to observe the salesperson to help coach them.  Unless agreed upon ahead of time, I don’t jump in.  But, I couldn’t help myself as I asked her, “Grace, how do you think we would pay for the bin if you didn’t deliver us the grain?”  Before I even finished the question, I realized the error in the way I worded the question.  Her reply came swiftly, “I don’t know and I don’t care. Your salesman told me I could deliver grain anywhere I wanted to!”

We were at that awful crossroads.  What to do when you want to treat every customer as if they are right, but you know they are dead wrong.  And Grace was dead wrong.  And she knew it.  Our dilemma was how do we resolve the signed contract versus the alleged word of an ex-salesman for the company.  Now, I know what the lawyers in the audience are saying.  A written contract takes precedence over a verbal.  Or, a verified verbal agreement overrides the written contract.  Jeff and I found out the purpose for the other people joining the meeting.  They were all there when the ex-salesman told Grace she could deliver the grain anywhere she wanted to.

Most disagreements don’t go the way of attorneys and courts.  So, let’s talk about how we get out of this situation.  Better yet, let’s talk about how we keep from getting into this situation.

Here are a few tips to try and stay out of this dilemma.  I say “try” because, in a lifetime of selling, you are going to run across all levels of ethics in your customer and in your sales team.  There is no foolproof method for completely avoiding it, but these tactics have helped me.

  1. Put it in writing: The written word, especially when signed is extremely powerful. Much of agribusiness is done on nothing more than a handshake, which is great until something goes wrong.  Paperwork slows the process down and sometimes is not possible at the speed with which we operate.  So, you have to weigh the risk or ability to actually complete and acquire signed documents versus verbal agreements.  On the long-term transactions or the out-of-the-ordinary transactions, get it in writing.
  2. Set expectations ahead of time: I can’t stress this enough.  Know your products and services and do everything in your power to explain them in simple, easy to understand terms.  Keep good notes on the fact that you explained these expectations ahead of time.  Better yet, set up a system where you follow the same steps with every customer every time.  For example, when entering an order, read back the order for confirmation.  I can’t tell you how many times a customer made changes after hearing the salesperson or customer service representative read back the order to them.
  3. Know the trouble spots and explain them over and over and over again: This is a challenge for many salespeople.  Here’s why.  The troubled spots are often the reasons that the customer might not want to make the transaction.  In our example, Grace may not have agreed to the bin program if she had to deliver to us for three years.  So, knowing that, the salesperson may have omitted that explanation.  As you get to know your products, you will know where customers struggle.  You will know where the confusion comes in and disagreements occur.
  4. After explaining the trouble spots over and over, provide an extra document that explains this troubled area: This is your call, but many companies do this.  Ever check into a hotel with a dog?  You sign an extra document that states you will pay for damages.  Ever buy a house?  You sign multiple documents that explain things several times.  Some documents are saying that you agree that you understand the previous document you just signed.
  5. The Gray Areas: If you have any gray areas in any transactions, work hard to clarify them.  If not, you run the risk of getting yourself into a farm call like me and Jeff were on.
  6. The Decision: Once in the middle of a mess, what do you do?  First, realize as stated earlier that very few disagreements go to full out court cases.  The reason is that you both still need each other.  It’s a matter of trying to establish what is right for both of you.
    1. Setting Precedence: Realize that when you make the decision, you might be setting precedence for all future transactions. The agribusiness world is a small world.  What you decide to do will most likely be shared at the coffee shop with six other customers of yours.  I’m not saying you have to “give in” and do what the customer wants so you don’t get bad-mouthed at the coffee shop.  Especially if you want it known that you won’t tolerate someone treating you and your company that way
    2. The judgment call with each customer: The legal department will probably not like this.  However, each case has circumstances.  This makes each case a judgment call.  Did the customer try to make every effort?  Is there a possibility that the customer is correct?  Or correct in their mind?  Is the customer trying to take advantage of the situation?  Is it worth the fight or do I need to set the example with this disagreement?  If you are the sales manager and are making the decision, does the salesperson involved understand why you are making the decision you made?  Does that salesperson understand how to keep you out of this type of problem in the future?
    3. Win the battle or the war: Again, the legal department might not like this view.  However, you need to decide if winning this disagreement is worth the price of losing the customer.  As mentioned, the customer is always right in that they vote with their money.  So, you can win the small battle at hand and lose them as a customer.  This concept plays into your decision as does the need to be fair across the board to how you handled other customers in this situation.


In summary, it was a tough day on the farm for Jeff and I.  Arriving back at the office, I did some research on the salesperson who sold the bin.  There was a high likelihood that he actually did tell Grace that she could deliver the grain anywhere.  Without explaining how flexing bushels works, I’ll just leave it that there was a real chance that Grace was right.  And of course, we settled out of court.


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