The customer is always right
Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London is reported as having coined the phrase, ‘The customer is always right’ in 1909. It is often wheeled out when trying to convince hard done by employees of one thing or another. It is often misunderstood and misused however, which causes all sorts of problems. My suspicion is that Harry simplified to aid wider understanding. If you use the phrase to refer to customers in the plural rather than the individual it makes sense. In fact it is as important and useful as it is famous and lasting. It succinctly captures the idea of market orientation.
Remember the war veteran
In August 1997 I had a walking stick waved at my head by an elderly war veteran who took offence when I offered advice about which cough mixture may help. I know he was a war veteran because he subsequently told me so in front of the rest of the pharmacy. Loudly. I was a 19 year old pharmacy summer student and suitably humbled. I meant well. I was innocently doing what I had been taught to do.
When the dust settled, the pharmacy manager just looked at me with a sad face and left it at that. Which was a shame. I was left to ponder what it all meant myself. In retrospect, the look on her face was a lesson in itself. While the vast majority of customers are able to behave pleasantly, there are those that, for one reason of another, well, aren’t. There is nothing we can do about that. The war veteran was old. He was tired. He was ill. He was alone. He’d fought his way into the centre of Liverpool to seek help. No wonder he was struggling. He also knew what he wanted. We disagreed about whether to treat a productive cough with a suppressant or an expectorant. I can only assume that I seemed like a disrespectful, upstart child to him. Hence the waving of sticks. I regret that I wan’t able to help him in the way he wanted helping. Thankfully one of my colleagues found a way that suited him.
This memorable episode teaches us that the customer is not always right. In fact when providing healthcare the customer is often on the wrong side of the knowledge balance. Healthcare professionals don’t deliver simple products that customers always understand and we are tasked with developing their understanding and delivering the best healthcare we can. I’m sure that you could tell any number of similar stories about customers or patients who were not happy and let you know about it. Why then is Harry Selfridge’s phrase so well known and why is it still relevant over a 100 years later?
Customer or customers?
At the root of the phrase is the implication that whatever the customer asks for they should get, which when you think about individual customers can get you into trouble if applied rigidly. That’s where most people make the mistake. In fact Alexander Kjefulf waxes lyrical about why this is the case in his article for Huffpost and misses the point in the process. Let’s give Harry a little more credit than that and consider that the word ‘customer’ can be used as a plural as well as a singular noun. When you think about a group of customers, let’s say your target market, the phrase starts to make total sense without any frustrating personal experiences ruining the party. So let’s assume that we are thinking about customers as a group and that Harry always meant it that way. Meeting or satisfying customer needs is the primary reason for the existence of your organisation. It defines what your organisation is and what it is trying to achieve. Or at least it should. The phrase may well have been meant to inspire us to invest in understanding our customers’ needs and how best to satisfy them.
Also known as customer orientation, customer focus, customer centricity and a whole host of other things, market orientation is the understanding at both personal and organisational level that customer satisfaction is the single most important goal of any organisation. Everything else, including financial success, stems from there. There are of course, many decisions about how to deliver that satisfaction at an acceptable profit but they are secondary. Furthermore, market orientation is the enactment of that understanding. The embedding of it in everything that the organisation does and how it does it, so that the customer can feel it when they interact with you.
It’s not easy and while most good business people have a sense of it somewhere inside them, think of it as an ongoing activity rather than just a state of mind. The customer won’t experience your state of mind but they will experience how you deliver that state of mind through your operation. In the cut and thrust of running a business it is very easy to get distracted and accidentally make decisions based on something other than customer satisfaction. One of the simplest tools, if you are ever unsure, is to ask yourself whether what you are about to do enhances customer satisfaction or not. Do it out loud if you need to. It often helps to weedle out if you are kidding yourself. I’ve witnessed one of the best CEOs I know do this on more than one occasion.
To start taking deliberate action, write a list of every point at which your customer comes into contact with your organisation. Customer touch points. Then assess, in whatever way is appropriate, the satisfaction levels of customers at each point. Determine how you can improve satisfaction at each point, whether big or small, and implement. Assess satisfaction again a while later and you can monitor your progress. When you are happy that these crucial customer touch points are improving you can move onto other areas of the organisation.
It may seem like it is a lot of work and there will be many barriers to prioritising this above other jobs you have to get done. Find the time. Find the space. Customer satisfaction is the most important goal of any organisation and a key part of marketing strategy.