You can’t win an argument with a customer

Holly Stiel, the great hospitality customer service guru, says it perfectly: “Being Right is the booby prize.”

Last week, an article in the Wall Street Journal described Proctor & Gamble’s burgeoning PR disaster involving a new disposable diaper that may be causing rashes. They’re printing the liquid-absorbing gel onto the surface of the diaper instead of putting it inside several layers. It makes the diapers thinner. P & G insists it was the most-tested new disposable diaper ever. Great! They avidly courted 50 influential Mommy Bloggers before the launch.  But after all that, 7,000 Facebook-wielding Mommy Bloggers (and counting) have stormed the barricades, demanding the return of the previous version.

But P & G is mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more!  (I can just hear them hollering in the board room, “I thought you said we got ALL the Mommy Bloggers!”) The company that wrote the book on branding and brand management is not in the driver’s seat any more. It is a profound illustration of just how much business has changed in the last few years. You almost feel sorry for the poor saps, as they draw their line in the sand and stare down the jostling mob just across the moat.

So. How do you think this is going to play out? Do you think those Bommy Moggers are going to listen to the voice of P & G reason?

British Petroleum has been even more ham-fisted in its handling of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. A company that makes billions in profit should be able to afford better PR coaching and crisis management.

But I have to admit, I feel exactly the way any embattled business leader does when I read a snarky Yelp review. (Thank goodness I don’t have to do that live, on a web cam.) The urge to prove that you’re right (or at least, not wrong) is overpowering. This is when we count to three hundred and try to remember Habit #5 of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

I remember Steven Covey describing this behavior as “being willing to have your mind changed.” Instead of promoting your point of view, or waiting your turn to speak, you actually listen. And those of us who have customers know, you apologize. In this litigious world, it’s hard for businesspeople to forget about liability and the potential legal consequences of saying, “You know what? You’re absolutely right. We screwed up. And we’re sorry.” But you have to.

The simple fact is, if the customer thinks you screwed up, you did. Perception is reality. The question becomes not how you’re going to convince them otherwise, but how you’re going to rescue the relationship. Doing the Right Thing when you’re pretty sure you didn’t do anything Wrong is hard. Customers are wrong all the time; however, the social contract we entered into when we opened the doors to our spa clearly states that they’re Always Right.

(Admit it, when you’re the customer, you’re always right. Aren’t you?)

The customer who complains is the canary in your coal mine–only 10% of customers actually do. So the next time a mishap tempts you to even explain (explaining is an insidious form of not-agreeing, i.e. arguing) listen to what the customer is saying. Chances are very good you’ll learn something valuable.

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