by Eric Samuels


The caller was belligerent and relentless; a potent combination. The focus of his anger was the radio station I was working for and by extension, the person who answered the phone; yours truly.

It was my very first radio gig. In fact, it was my first month on the job, so I didn’t want to screw anything up! I remembered what I had been taught: as the ambassador for the radio station, it was my responsibility to be professional and polite to everyone who called during my on-air shift. My training was clear; “the customer is always right.” This would be a real test of that commitment, as this guy was more than a handful.

His anger began by targeting the station playlist; “You know, The Eagles recorded more than the three f%#&@ songs you keep playing over and over!” It soon expanded into a diatribe on some of my co-workers, for whom he had detailed disdain. Finally, he railed against our station’s promotional community van, for taking up multiple parking spots at a grocery store he frequents (this may have been true, as the vehicle actually towed a large ‘Boom Box’ requiring at least two parking spots).

This was one unhappy customer. I know, he called at least a half-dozen times that evening to share his feelings. And he was actually listening, as evidenced by the detailed criticism he freely offered with all the bedside manner of Dr. House: “You just said on the radio that the album came out in ’74, it was actually December of ’73. I thought you people were supposed to know what you’re talking about….Man, you really suck at this…..”

Now, it is true that you can actually convert 80% of complainants using basic objection-handling techniques. In fact, in many instances you can build extraordinary loyalty by simply listening to your customer who, in a world of less-than-efficient automated customer service call centres, can’t help but feel disenfranchised.

But then there’s the other 20%. These are people who don’t want to let facts interfere with their opinion. My caller was most certainly in this category.

At one point in the evening, I was reminded of a story that a DJ at another station had told a group of us, while trading ‘radio stories’ at a pub, a few weeks prior. Apparently he had a listener continue to call with what he considered a series of inane complaints and no effort on his part to appease her, seemed to help. After several calls, he realized that he couldn’t win her over, so he asked:

Mam, is your radio the kind that has a dial?

Of course it does, it’s a top-of-the-line stereo!” she responded incredulously.

Then use it.” click.

But there was no way I was going to hang up on this guy, that would surely get me in trouble with the boss! So, I continued to absorb his abuse; and when things got personal, I tried to politely end the call, as trained. But he had pushed my buttons (you know the way some people just have that knack?) and was certainly getting to me. Listening to the tape of my show later on, I could hear the resulting lack of focus and shakiness in my voice. One caller had managed to compromise the service for all the other customers, and I let it happen!

In my radio career that spanned nearly 30 years, I came across this same character-type over and over again. Angry and feeling disenfranchised, they lash out with a vengeance that’s fuelled by….well I won’t even begin to analyze what their motivation might be. Point is this, it took me a while, but I finally realized that – Sometimes, you have to fire your own customers.

Many businesses have them – customers who require such energy and resources, that they’re nothing more than a drain on the organization and ultimately the bottom-line. Often times, they’re simply unhappy people who misunderstand and attempt to exploit the old adage that “The Customer is always right.”

But here’s the thing, that expression is among the most misunderstood in business as it was never intended to mean that an organization should relentlessly bend to the will of its customer.

Yes, there are organizations that choose to tip the scale with extraordinary customer service as part of their brand identity. Costco, for instance, which has a return policy that is virtually no questions asked, and truly unrivalled in retail. But talk to a Costco employee who works the returns desk and your head will shake with disbelief at stories of unscrupulous customers testing the boundaries of the policy!

In truth, the Customer is always right, was born as a marketing campaign at a very different time and with very different intent. There is some debate as to who should be credited for the phrase, as it may legitimately be a case of early 20th Century zeitgeist. Nearly simultaneously, it was introduced by U.K. retailer, Selfridges (London) and U.S. department store Marshall Field’s (Chicago); although its origin may more accurately be traced to French hotelier Cesar Ritz, who is credited with having said “le client n’a jamais tort” – “The customer is never wrong“.

Regardless of its original author, we know that the phrase was introduced in the early 1900s, to create a mindset for staff that customer service was paramount. More importantly, it was a marketing message to consumers that they were the top priority, something that had never been emphasized before. It was very effective at the time and, as a result, has been mistakenly carried forward as an iconic marketing principle with far too literal an interpretation.

Now don’t get me wrong. Customer service must always be a top priority. In fact, it may be one of your main competitive benefits in an era when your competitor may be a faceless digital entity, with an unmatchable price-point advantage. But that doesn’t mean you should ever bend until you break.

Firing your customer should be a rare and final course of action. But there are times when it is necessary. And when it happens, it’s essential to maintain your own integrity by taking the high-ground. Regardless of the urge (and it is perfectly natural to want to fight fire with fire) it’s essential to remain calm, polite and firm. Then move on to replace the lost customer with a new prospect whose needs you can better serve.

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