Just so you know I read something other than comic books and cereal boxes, I was reading some heavy philosophy and business books the other day. That proverbial light bulb went on, I got to thinking about some service experiences I recently encountered, and a column was born.

I don’t know who uttered the famous adage, “the customer is always right,” but I can imagine the frustration that might have followed. A customer probably had just asked him to perform some task or invent some product that had no place in his shop. And he had to remind himself that without that customer, he had no business. So he’d best get at it.  

Who can argue with the basic sentiment? We should always listen to our customers and seriously consider what they have to say. But we need to temper that with our own experience and do what is best for the customer.

I think McDonald’s took a very interesting approach to this adage in its earliest days, and we got very lucky. Whether the company knew it or not, it redefined the adage into “always deliver what the customer needs.” Diners needed good food, with fast friendly service, in a clean restaurant, at a value. McDonald’s said “yes” to this definition, but “no” to many other requests. In effect, the brand said “you will have it our way, because we know what is good for you.”  

McDonald’s set aside the statement “the customer is always right,” studied it vociferously, specifically did what it thought was right, and gave the adage a new twist.

This depended heavily on communication between the company and McDonald’s customers. If it had been wrong, no amount of advertising would have fixed it.  

Sit and observe your customers and put yourself in their shoes. See why they are always right.

That’s still true today. We have to have honest communication between a seller and a buyer, and right now we don’t. Let’s talk about how honesty and doing the right thing affects service, and how just saying “yes” can make a world of difference for your company.

I walked into a bar the other day for a root beer and the bartender was busily playing with the cash register with her back to me for a good 10 minutes. I was going to leave but I decided to see how long she was going to ignore her customer.

Then I was out of town recently and called a restaurant that advertised delivery. An employee there asked me where I was and then told me I was a block out of his delivery area. I could have been ordering for a large meeting, potentially hundreds of dollars. But he never asked.

These situations did not reflect honest communication from the employees I encountered. Why? Because the customer is always right. Just say yes, don’t argue. We’ll talk about a couple of instances when this is not true later. But for the moment, consider what the customer wants and why you should say yes to him.

I heard a story of a restaurant owner who was contacted by a customer complaining that the store closed early and she was not able to get dinner. Instead of apologizing and sending her a coupon, he argued that her watch must be wrong. Remember: The customer is always right.  

How can we serve our customers better? I wrote a line for a local grocery store once: “If it’s on sale, we’re out of it.” That’s not service. If it will take an hour to assemble an order, don’t tell me a half hour. If the product is four inches high, the package should not be eight inches high. No more, “Have It My Way.” Explain the offer in the advertising. We should outlaw motor mouths at the end of a radio commercial. If you can’t explain the offer in the ad, the promotion is too complicated.  

Every worker should be conversant with the ingredients in each menu item. And pursuant to all the work being done on menu labeling, a four-ounce cup of something is not four servings so I can say  it’s five calories per serving.

Want to improve communication and service? Don’t preach, listen. Sit and observe your customers and put yourself in their shoes. See why they are always right.  

Here’s one: Try underselling. How refreshing would that be? Eat with me because I have good food, not because everything is half price.

Have enough people on the floor that if you get slammed, you can open another line. And know how to give change, in case the computer goes out. Have an express line for items like drinks. I won’t wait, you better get to me quick.  

Customers are whizzes with social media these days; they can easily find your competitors and text problems with your store immediately. There is no cooling off period like there used to be. I could leave the store after a bad experience and decide to punt. Now I can sit down and tell the world right away.  

Have a list of simple services in your area. Be able to recommend somewhere to get a tire fixed, where the nearest Urgent Care is, and where there’s an inexpensive, clean motel nearby. That’s service to your customers. And of course, have a giveback program for your community.

Now, a few thoughts on when the customer might not always be right. If agreeing with him might put you into a wrongful lawsuit, you might want to state your case. If he wants you to add a product to your menu that would disrupt service, he’s probably not right. If he is complaining about an employee, get both sides of the story before you react. If it is an issue that you can explore with him, like cleanliness, do it immediately.

Say yes to your customers. You will never win the argument. You want to improve your communication with him and offer him the best service you can possibly provide. The way there is through honesty and anticipating what he needs.

I know the maxim, “the customer is always right,” has been around for a long time, but the time has never been better to take it out, dust it off, and implement it.  

Happy Trails, and a Peaceful New Year.

Employee Management, Story, McDonald's