Michael Best considers whether the customer really is always right

Universal Stores sold budget clothing in one of Cape Town’s northern suburbs. It doesn’t exist anymore but lives on in my memory as the place where I was introduced to the customer for the first time — during a holiday job in my last year of high school. The customer care training on the first day at Universal was brief and to the point. I don’t recall the training session having a title but it should have been: ‘Screw them before they screw you.’ In those days, South Africans did their weekend shopping on Saturday mornings because the stores closed at noon and didn’t reopen until Monday. After the Saturday morning pandemonium, we’d find stinking old shoes in some of the boxes — effectively a one-finger salute to our adversarial customer care policy.

Open for business

About 24 years later, when I opened my own business, my customer relations philosophy was a 180-degree departure from the Universal experience. The last thing I wanted was an adversarial relationship with my customers. I visualised my typical customer as someone well-mannered, honest, patient, polite, and cooperative: someone who’d come through the door smiling broadly and happily pay for my products and services. Like every new business owner, I needed customers – turning people away never crossed my mind. Eventually I became aware that my customer base was not, and would never be, a legion of angels. It was instead a representative sample of the population at large, and we all know what a mixed bag that is! Well-mannered, honest, patient, polite, and cooperative describes most customers, but will never describe an entire customer base. And to make matters more challenging, small business owners’ interactions with certain customers are tainted by a long-established myth-turned-mantra that makes the ill-mannered, impatient, impolite, uncooperative, and unreasonable believe that they are always right.

A myth dressed as a mantra

It’s one of the business world’s most common mantras: ‘The customer is always right.’ It’s also nonsense. The customer is not always right – far from it. This slogan was apparently popularised over one hundred years ago by renowned retailers such as Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field. They couldn’t have anticipated that their slogan – intended to positively influence the attitude of retail employees – could have contributed to some customers presuming that they have the right to speak and behave as badly as they please. They don’t. Unless you have a compelling reason to deal with bad customers, you’re better owithout them.

The definition of a great customer will vary from business to business. In my business it was a person of pleasant disposition who appreciated our commitment to quality at a fair price, who appreciated our reliable technical support, who was interested in a long-term relationship, and who paid their bills on time. Of course, this is not a one-way street. You have to encourage great customers and make it worth their while to keep bringing you their business. This will usually involve high-quality products and services, a welcoming, helpful attitude, and a genuine interest in solving whatever need they’ve brought you. Making your great customers feel that they’re part of something special encourages loyalty. And remember that people prefer to do business with people they like. But there’s a fine line between genuine likeability and faking it — customers can see through the latter and it turns them off.

Faking it

How many times have you heard the mechanical ‘Have a nice day!’ intoned by a customer service person who isn’t even looking at you? That type of scripted customer engagement doesn’t work for me because it invariably becomes a meaningless dialogue in which the customer is forced to participate for fear of appearing rude. I find this annoying, and I’ll bet many other customers would agree. How can any business person think that a dose of insincerity will do anything but leave a bitter aftertaste? It’s far better to ensure that your business offers genuine, heartfelt customer care. Hiring front-line personalities naturally inclined to engage people in a sincere, intelligent way is a much smarter idea than issuing scripts.

You will, of course, bend over backwards for great customers. It’s a necessary contortion we all undertake to acquire and retain desirable customers in a competitive market. Not only that, servicing customers well, experiencing their gratitude, knowing that you’ve made it easy for them to bring you return business, and turning them into word-of-mouth ambassadors is immensely satisfying to authentic customer service providers. Over time, your intuition in determining how far to bend over backwards for customers and potential customers grows, as does your confidence in trusting it. Even then there will be disappointments from time to time. But don’t let this get you down – occasional disappointments are part and parcel of dealing with customers.

In the world of small business, it’s very easy to cross the fine line between customer and friend. It would be unusual to not encounter customers with whom you have enough in common to strike up a friendship. There are, however, pitfalls. In a commercial relationship, issues such as pricing, delayed payments, discount expectations, defective products or services and late deliveries can arise to test the relationship. In short, money can add volatility to a relationship, and a commercial relationship, by its very nature, is money based. If there’s a one-answer-fits-all solution to customer-friend dilemmas, I’ve certainly never found it. But at least I’ve alerted you to a potential problem — and forewarned is forearmed.

How to disengage from bad customers

The worst aspect of selling on credit is bad debt. It can catch you by surprise and is always infuriating, not to mention damaging. So damaging that, if big enough, it can break a small business. Careful vetting of customers and tight credit management are absolute essentials, but they’re still not iron-clad guarantees against bad debts. If you’re vigilant, you’ll likely spot the red flags (slower payment patterns or rumours of problems, for example), and you can react to avoid, or at least minimise, a bad debt. But sometimes you can be caught unawares — even a historically stable customer might suddenly go off the rails. The challenge is to keep these losses to a minimum. My best hard-earned advice is to follow your intuition. If that little voice is telling you to see the red flags and take action, do it! If discussions with the customer don’t calm your fears, cut off supply, take legal action or whatever other measures are appropriate, but don’t delay.

Firing is a popular term used to describe the concept of showing unwanted customers the door. I subscribe to the concept but prefer the term disengage. It’s not good PR to have your business associated with aggression – aside from potential legal issues, word gets around. Shouting matches over the phone or rude email exchanges aren’t helpful either. You don’t want to commit defamation in writing or be recorded saying anything libellous. Instead, call or email, and tell the customer in polite language that your business has tried but is apparently incapable of satisfying his or her needs and that you are therefore terminating the relationship to allow him or her to deal with one of your competitors.


I have been influenced by the business literature on customers. It’s where I heard that customers who come only for a low price will leave for a lower price – something I found to be true. It’s where I learned to never assume that I knew what my customers wanted and to instead ask them what they wanted. It’s where I read how even small gestures of gratitude are appreciated by customers, and this inspired the candy-bars-with-every-delivery idea that brought us untold goodwill over a 20-year span. I recommend that all small business owners and intended owners develop the good habit of mining the business literature (books, articles, and blogs) for advice and ideas on customer management suited to their particular small business. A slate of great customers is a huge economic and psychological advantage – it’s well worth making it a focus of your business. Decide whom you want to do business with and do all that’s necessary to help them feel that they want to do business with you. As for the troublesome minority, remember that while disengaging from customers may seem counterintuitive, it’s a legitimate, albeit under-utilised, business practice.

This is an edited excerpt from Characters Who Can Make Or Break Your Small Business by Michael Best. Through 39 characters, Michael covers all aspects most small business owners can expect to encounter in the life of a business from inception to disposition. It can be read linearly or used a reference book to be consulted when confronted with a particular issue. Real life examples and anecdotes presented conversationally means it’s not your average, boring business book. It is available from: