When the customer is wrong


Goatee The saying goes, “Rule #1: The customer is always right.” But what about the customers who appear to be idiots or ignoramuses? What if the customer is wrong? The extended cliché goes, “Rule #2: If the customer is wrong, see rule #1.” Now that’s really stupid. Customers are often wrong and make nonsensical requests about everything from product design to staffing recommendations.

Customers aren’t trying to be mean or unhelpful. They’re just aggravated and often clueless about how things work, what’s really the problem, and how best to actually fix it. We’re all misguided when we’re misinformed. We’re all feisty when we’re frustrated. None of that makes us right. So how do you pretend a customer is right when they are unambiguously, demonstrably, ludicrously wrong?

You focus on the things the customer is right about. Customers are always right about what they experience (from their point of view), how they feel, and the problems they encounter. To truly solve customer problems, you must believe and acknowledge customer issues and then find the root cause and proper fix.

Other clichés also have hidden truths. What’s hidden in such ridiculous sayings as “We win together,” “People buy people, not products,” and “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”? Find the startling answers below.

Love, love, love

Before we get into the clichés, it’s important to remember that we all have multiple customers. There are end customers who use our products and services, but there are also our internal and external partners, and our people and product management. The clichés apply to all of these customer types, including and sometimes especially to the internal ones.

I discuss this in length in a post I wrote a couple of years ago, titled with the customer cliché We love our customers and partners. That cliché isn’t about dating or worship. It’s not even about liking our customers and partners. The hidden truth is that we love our customers and partners like family. We don’t get to choose them, but we don’t exist without them. We must accept customers and partners, warts and all, and take care of them like the families we love. With diligence and perseverance, that love will be returned.

All together now

The next cliché is, “We win together.” It makes me want to gag. Compromising and collaborating doesn’t feel like winning—it feels like compromising. It’s frustrating. It adds overhead. It slows you down. The trouble is that you can’t achieve really big things on your own. In addition, duplicating effort is costly. To succeed, you need your internal and external customers to be invested in your shared triumphs.

Thus, it’s necessary to compromise and collaborate to win big (gagging aside). Deeply involving your internal and external customers, and sharing your success together, creates a broader and stronger coalition to accomplish difficult results. Sure, there’s more overhead—you’ve got to communicate frequently (no one likes when people “go dark”), deal with differing goals and priorities, and compromise where necessary (which can feel icky)—but winning together is how great things get done.

Eric Aside

You can read more about difficult dependencies in You can depend on me.

Baby, you're a rich man

Is there anything more like Madison Avenue marketing hype than, “People buy people, not products”? You may not have heard this cliché before if you haven’t worked in sales and marketing, so you may be wondering what it has to do with engineering.

Engineers don’t sell, but they do communicate with internal and external customers frequently, whether through product UI and experiences, social media, documentation, or common email. For years, Microsoft’s products were impersonal, which was also reflected in our documentation and even cross-group email. However, impersonal communication is cold, uncaring, and increasingly undesirable. (Brash, arrogant, authoritarian communication is even worse, though I admit that it’s captivating when done satirically.)

You want customer communications to be personable in a manner that is consistent and well-aligned with our positive culture and mission. Match the style and tone of your product and organization in a way that speaks to customers as you’d want to be heard. If you need examples for your particular product or organization, reach out to your Content Publishing team.

Eric Aside

More on communications in “You talking to me?” (chapter 8) and Writing for readers.

Tell me why

Another common cliché is, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Folks with logical, rational minds, like engineers, might believe this notion to be utter nonsense. Unfortunately, contrary to some people’s aspirations, we aren’t Vulcans.

How you say things is incredibly important to humans. Just imagine the last strong, emotional reaction you had to a statement. I’m sure you thought the agitator could have used more considerate phrasing.

You want to frame your internal and external messages thoughtfully and effectively.

  • Always describe the problem before the solution. You want people to discuss different solutions, not whether the solution is necessary.
  • Acknowledge the pain (and gain) involved in any change. Change is difficult, even when it’s a huge improvement.
  • Set realistic expectations around timing and results. Optimistic messaging may sound better initially, but it also may not be believable and will likely break trust later.
  • Speak from the viewpoint of the customer. Self-serving details and self-congratulation may make you sound smart and successful, but they are superficial and show little empathy for your customer’s concerns.
  • Talk with customers, not at customers. Showing you understand their problems and how your solution really resolves their issues is far more effective than just declaring, “We’ve fixed that.”

Once you’ve got the right framing for your message, you’re going to need to repeat it multiple times in multiple ways. Internal and external customers need to be primed to accept change gracefully—no one likes surprises. You need to warm them to the change. Put your message, whether it’s status or product changes, wherever customers will find it: in your products and services, on your websites, on social media, in talks and videos, and via email.

People need reminding, so when you roll out a change, talk about it weeks in advance, just before it happens, right when it’s happening, and after it happened with your thanks for their involvement and patience. The right communication, done the right way, in all the right places, is often the difference between success and failure.

Eric Aside

To drive change effectively, consider Things have got to change.

Good day sunshine

Working with internal and external customers is difficult, but quite rewarding. While customer clichés can seem tired and patronizing, there are real truths behind them.

Your customers are always right about their experiences, feelings, and problems—propose solutions that address all three. You should love your customers (and partners) like family—we take care of each other. When we involve our customers in our shared success, they invest themselves with us and we do win together. Our customers, whether they work down the hall or across the ocean, are real people and deserve personal communications that align with our positive culture and mission. How we talk to our customers matters—we should frame our messages with care, empathy, and integrity. Repeat those consistent messages through different mediums and at different times to meet our customers where they are.

Without customers we have no business and no purpose. Whether internal or external, our customers are at the very center of our success. It may be cliché, but we really do need to show our customers we care.

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