When the company is right to say a customer is wrong

Sometimes someone says something that allows you to see an issue in a whole new light. I had one of those a-ha moments today when listening to a CW Radio interview with Pam Shockley-Zalabak about the book she has just co-written Building the High-Trust Organization.  I am a child of the “customer-is-always right” school of thinking (a belief which is sorely tested on a nearly daily basis in my adopted country of France). Furthermore, the rise of social media seems to have given rise to a consensus that not only is the customer always right, but right now.

So I found it interesting to hear Ms. Shockley-Zalabak talk about reliability, trust and what happens when customers are wrong and employees are right.

Her point is that in such cases, employers need to stand up to the customers in order to maintain the trust of their employees. She noted that Southwest Airlines has been very vocal about their intention to defend employees against customers who had gotten the wrong end of the stick (and has apparently demonstrated their willingness to put their words into action).

While the metaphor is most certainly imperfect, it made me think about the received wisdom that parents should love each of their children equally but differently. In business communications, there is a tendency to treat customers as the favoured stakeholder. While they are critical for obvious reasons, perhaps we need to replace this first-among-equals attitude by an equal-but-different one. That being said, I don’t think that all stakeholders should be seen as equally well-loved children. Customers, employees and shareholders should probably be in the same circle, but other stakeholders might be more like cousins in a culture where clans and extended families make up the social fabric: there’s no getting rid of them and they are going to be included in all the important decisions, but it’s not quite the same as the direct parent-child relationship.

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