We have all heard, “The customer is always right,” and, depending on the age of the hearer, this little phrase is either the foundation of customer service or an old bromide of a bygone era. Is this smart business, or is it obsolete?

David Meador

We are all in the service business, even if we think we’re not. We have to give our customers what we ourselves expect from the sales and service people we deal with. We expect:

Professional Appearance. Two service providers vie for our business. For the sake of argument, we know nothing about their capabilities; we have to pick one only by looks. The first one is clean-shaven and has conservative hair, unwrinkled and matching clothing, clean teeth, shined shoes, good posture, clean hands and nails, and a tidy product case. The second one has a 2-day beard, unkempt hair, week-old clothing, unmatched socks, black fingernails, smells like a laundry hamper, and has tools sticking out of every pocket.

We want someone who is going to take care of us as well as he/she takes care of himself or herself. We want someone who is going to meet our expectations. Trade secret: Look like the most respected people in our business.

Pleasant Demeanor and Smile. Even if we are having a bad day, smile. Firm (not crushing) handshake. “How are you?” “How’s the family?” “Great weather!” “Love my job!” “I am ready to help.” A good mood and attitude are contagious and welcome.

Concern. “Tell me about your problem/needs.” Alert! Alert! Valuable and critical information follows—we pay close attention! We show our attention by pulling out our professional notebook (paper kind) and our professional pen and taking notes. We make two columns: one column titled “problems” and a second one titled “expectations.” As we ask our client to tell us about their problems and needs, we note each one in the appropriate column. The client will see what we are doing and will often fall into “data dump” mode, and will sometimes even tell us to note an item in our book.

The next step is to ask our client, “What should we do first?” Or, “What is most important?” We then assign number priorities to the entries in each column. When we perceive that our client is done with explaining the situation, we survey our notes and explain what we will do and how and when we will do it. We never tell the client “No.” We will instead say we will “Explain this to our director.”

Good Communication. Communication is creating understanding between two or more parties. A customer may not know our terminology or language, but we are the professionals. We will decode what our customer says and speak their language—not ours. No technical treatise. No jargon, acronyms, or special terminology. We try to match our customer’s rate of speech, vocabulary level (down, not up), knowledge level (but we avoid dumbing down), even posture. This is called “mirroring.” Smoothly done, it puts the customer at ease.

If we do not understand something our client says, we politely ask for clarification and restate the explanation to make sure we have it right.

In our professional notebook, we write down contact information, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. We offer our professional business card from our professional cardholder.

Competence. As Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry says, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Women too. We do all we are capable of. For things outside this zone, we call for backup. This generates results and respect. It is professional. However, we never make it look too easy or too simple because this would devalue our customer’s concerns. This would also devalue all our expertise and training. We do not complain about difficulties because this communicates weakness and lack of skill. We overcome challenges.

Generosity. We do extra things that our client appreciates that we can easily and cheaply do. If we get done early, we polish something. We always give a “gift” for the privilege of serving.

Availability. We use pagers and voicemail to make ourselves available. If time allows, we drop in on a customer to see how they are doing. In the repair business, we do not want to always be associated with bad stuff like a crisis or a failure. Visits help break the bad association and often give us an advance lead on something that can be easily nipped in the bud. We become positively associated with solutions. For in-house people it is literally the best time we can spend.

Find past Soapbox columns in the 24×7 archives.

Agreeability. The customer is always right. We never contradict a customer, we never disagree with a customer, and we never talk politics or religion with our customer. We are pleasant. We talk about what we can do, and we do it. For important customer priorities that we cannot meet, we refer them to management and advocate our customer’s case.

“The customer is always right” is not a narrow dictate. As long as there are customers, it will never be obsolete. It is a service mind-set that produces positive reactions to customer needs. This mind-set works for entry-level techs as well as corporate presidents. It is a challenge to get it right every time, but then—we like challenges.

David Meador has worked in technical and medical technology fields since 1975. He is a biomedical equipment support specialist at Edward Hines Veterans Administration Medical Center, Chicago. For more information, contact .

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