I was scanning LinkedIn and encountered yet again a variation of The Customer Always Right debate. This discussion shows up every few months or so.

Christmas was approaching and I was conducting a year-end inventory of my professional and creative efforts, squeezed in between wrapping presents and and wrapping up lose ends for my day job. A bit of course correction is needed in my life, and I was using down time to let my mind explore new business ideas as well as check what old acquaintances were doing. I wasn’t in the mood, however, for participating in business banter, so I skipped a response, but the debate bothered me, and I realized that the core of the question was at the core of my professional and creative perspectives.

The problem with asking Is the Customer Always Right is lies in the question itself, which suggests there can possibly be a binary yes or no truth. Ask yourself that question and you’ll always miss out on a richer understanding of the situation. This holds true as much for customer service interactions as it does for fiction writing. Why are we all so worried about being right?

Even in a traditional customer/business relationship, if a customer is angry, that’s the reality. Right or wrong is secondary. What’s the point in focusing there? I’ll give an actual example:

I was working managing a health-oriented brand, and as it was a small company, I handled many different aspects of the job, including taking difficult phone calls. A woman was on the line who had blatantly misused a product, taking off a cover that doesn’t come off, damaging the product (a mattress) in the process. Her son had thrown up on the product and given that the mattress had a zipper on it she forced the cover off, which had to have been difficult. She was furious that after she washed the cover it had shrunk to the size of postage stamp.

When I got the call she was frantic and venting her anger at me. I listened, and as as I did, I could see she was fully in the wrong in terms of using the product. This wasn’t even a grey area. I did my best to listen and validate her frustration, and then I did something that completely threw her off. I asked how her son was.

She stopped ranting, was quiet for a second, and asked “what?” I repeated my question. “You said your son was sick. How is he now?”

There was a short silence, and then the woman began telling her story. Her son was sleeping, but she had been scared. She was a single parent and had saved up for an organic mattress which she had wanted for him. She had been up most of the night with her son, so was sleep deprived and the weight of the world was pressing on her.

She unloaded her worries on me, and it became clear that the mattress cover was a representation of all kinds of unrelated areas of her life, taking on epic proportions to her as a symbol of choices and fears, of disappointments and losses. She was tired and scared and frustrated and full of self doubt, and nobody was listening to her or seeing her.

Was the customer right? In the context of a human life, it’s a ridiculous question. Even if I had to deliver bad business news to her, right or wrong didn’t matter. She was hurt and, even though she didn’t realize it, she wanted someone to hear her.

In business sometimes news is good and sometimes news is bad, and whether a customer is right or wrong as a question focuses on what the news will be.  In that sense, then, of course a customer isn’t always right. A customer can’t always be given a free item or free service. Sometimes that isn’t even possible.

But is a customer right in feeling the way she feels? Are you right in feeling the way you feel right now? Maybe your feelings are based on false assumptions or past hurts tucked away in your subconscious. Maybe your feelings are an impossible mix of contradictions. Maybe your feelings will change in an hour or a day. The question of if they are right or wrong is too simple and too naive. That particular question leads the responses in directions that don’t help anyone.

As a people, us humans would be better served by getting past an obsessive concern for proving we’re right at the expense of truly hearing someone else. Have convictions, keep learning, understand their are rules and boundaries, but let go of trying to prove to someone else you’re right and they’re wrong. This holds true in crafting characters in a piece of fiction as well as handling a business phone call.

From a story-telling perspective, you might wonder how the pukey kid story unfolded. I took care of the customer and worked it out, but more importantly I connected with a fellow human being, and it was a magical experience. I knew, oh how I knew, her pain.

The questions we ask ourselves and of others direct the answers we’ll get. Sometimes it’s not even about the answers, but in understanding we’re being played by the questions. Sometimes it’s good to simply listen.




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