Customers can be wrong

Is the customer ever wrong? That was a question that I posed to the wonderful Doug Shaw at the CIPD Conference in Social Media last year. I was being mischievous. Because the answer is, of course. Sometimes the customer IS wrong. Let me give you some examples.

I was out for dinner on Saturday night and when we went to order the waiter had a somewhat quizzical look in his eye. We were ordering from the menu, we were ordering perfectly good dishes, but he felt that there were better dishes on the menu that we could be eating. He recommended, we went with his recommendations and we had an amazing meal. For the record, that was Khan’s of Brixton….it doesn’t look much, but the food is amazing.  The thing was, he was trying to give us a better experience.

I’ve come across suppliers, in the past, who have turned work down because they didn’t feel it was their strong suit. I’ve complete respect for that. I’ve also come across suppliers who have tried to convince me that I wanted product A not product B. Not because product A was better, but because they couldn’t do product B. I’ve less respect for that.

I may have been wrong in both cases, but the honesty and the integrity of the supplier was the differentiating factor. And likewise, as an HR practitioner, sometimes you will come up against circumstances where the client or customer is wrong. They want to do one thing, you believe that another thing is right. If you have the best interests of the business and the client at heart, then you should feel free to challenge and free to try to guide them to a better solution. The old HR adage of, “I explain to them the risks and then I let them make the decision”, is an out dated, ill thought through, pile of steaming nonsense. That is not adding value in any shape or form.

Challenging a CEO, or senior manager, who has their mind set on one thing and influencing them to do something else is scary. It can be risky and in some organisations it can be dangerous. But be under no illusion, that it is right. Just choose how you approach it, choose how you do it and be prepared to be proved wrong. We all are sometimes.

Like suppliers, as an HR professional, you should be looking to build a long-term sustainable relationship. That means that a level of openness, honesty and challenge is always appropriate even if it isn’t always welcome. Customers aren’t always right, sometimes they need a little guidance. It can be hard work, it can be unforgiving, but it is one way to really add value to your business.

If you don’t believe me, watch this:


  1. ethicalcompanies · November 14, 2012

    You forgot to mention one section of the populace is wrong a lot of the time and, in my experience, arrogant to go with it …. Yes it’s those pariahs of modern day workplaces: recruiters. Stuff like “you’re not suitable bla bla bla”, yet you know your industry and you tick every “box” on the job advert ….. Hmmm. F***h**g monkeys if you ask me.

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      Bad experience?

  2. ethicalcompanies · November 14, 2012

    PS if you don’t post my last comment then clearly you’re as blinkered and un-open to criticism as the rest of the HR/recruitment industry.

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      It is posted…..

  3. pwillcox · November 14, 2012

    Hi Neil. Another great post and one that really resonates with me.

    I can understand the old adage of, “I explained the risks, gave my advice and it is up to the manager if they do ……..” as it may seem as though ‘I have done my bit’.

    Interestingly I also supported this view at one time in my hr career. That said, it never quite felt right.

    At the risk of being slightly ‘corporate’ I do love the fact that the hr profession map has a whole area on challenge. Similar to my comment on your last post, of we can’t challenge the managers, leaders or the organisation to be doing the right things by its people, we may as well pack our bags, go home and let a mathematical calculation weigh the risk and provide a recommendation.

    Thx again Neil.

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      Thanks. I too once supported the view….I think that a lot of people did and a lot of people, sadly, still do.

  4. Richard Smith · November 14, 2012

    Neil, thanks as always for an interesting and well argued blog. Thanks also for reminding me of Lenny Henry’s Chef – quality. Suppliers i.e. the salesmen, should always know when to say no and accept that they can’t win every time and if they don’t take it personally their careers and lives would be a lot easier.
    I do, of course, disagree with “ethicalcompanies” and recognise that he’ll only comment further “that you would say that wouldn’t you” – yes I would.

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      Disagreement is good. I disagree with myself and other people on a daily basis!

  5. Neil · November 14, 2012

    A comment from Doug Shaw who is struggling with technology…..I promise, I’m not making it up.

    “Hi Neil – I can’t comment on WordPress blogs again – something to do with the new Jetpack stats plugin I think. Anyway – I wrote a comment for your blog, if you can be arsed to publish it, here it is:

    “Don’t go thinking I forgot you threw that particular banana skin at my feet Neil 😉 It’s a great question and for sure, the customer is wrong sometimes, we all are. And that doesn’t mean we have to make them feel stupid about it, unless we really want to of course.

    Challenge and conflict are far more useful than we give them credit for and I think it’s a real shame that most workplace cultures don’t encourage challenge, and address conflict, at least not until it’s been blown way out of proportion. I’ve had a long day so I’m going to close by reusing a comment I added to Jay Kuhns’ recent blog post on conflict and challenge.

    ‘Conflict is everywhere. We invest, no make that waste, huge amounts of time and effort trying to avoid it and that only makes it worse. I know it’s tough but when people fall out of agreement with one another, the first place they should go for a resolution is straight back to that person, and quickly. Escalating something as a first resort nearly always sucks because a) you’re playing just one side of the story to the person you’re escalating to (the other guy’s boss usually) and b) in so doing you’re just undermining the other person.

    Differences acknowledged quickly, and peer to peer can often yield quite positive outcomes. I don’t know anyone who appreciates it when folk go behind their back and that is almost always what happens when conflict rears it’s head at work.’

    Thanks for asking me that question – almost a year ago. I will get you back :)”

    PS. You’re amazing, I love you, I want to be you.

    Ok. I made that last bit up!

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      I agree with you Doug…..particularly the PS.

  6. Doug Shaw · November 15, 2012

    Dang it – I could’ve sworn I edited out the PS!

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      You didn’t….

  7. Jemma Taylor · December 18, 2012

    You were right in saying that customers can also be wrong sometimes and not always the owner. Overall, I think this article becomes great because of your experience !!!

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      Is this spam…..?

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