Is the Customer Always Right?

We’ve all heard the age-old refrain: The Customer is Always Right. The phrase means we should approach each customer complaint with humility rather than defensiveness, which is excellent advice. But the phrase also implies that we should react to each dissatisfied customer the same way: to apologize, and move on. We should smooth over the issue as fast as possible without engaging. Essentially, we should avoid conflict at all costs.

But conflict is a normal, healthy part of relationships between people. We see the benefits of conflict all around us. Great leaders like Abraham Lincoln listened to their colleagues’ disagreements, making space for questioning and finding flaws in their motivations. Great friends are the ones who will tell us hard truths we don’t want to hear. And if we could wave our wands and take all the conflict out of relationships with our life partners, we’d be bored as all heck.

Learning to see conflict as an opportunity for growth is one of life’s greatest challenges. Conflict is healthy, but it’s also terrifying. When we have issues with an employee and need to have a talk, our hearts start pounding and our hands start to sweat. Our minds pull up horror scenarios where the employee reacts by quitting, or where we’re bad people and it’s all our fault.

Fear of confrontation makes us want to get this over quickly:  just apologize and move on, or tell the employee what they did wrong and move on. But each issue with an employee differs from the last, and if we brush past a real discussion about the issues at hand, neither of us would learn anything. It’s best to set fear aside (a mighty feat!), and replace it with respect and compassionate inquiry.

The Art of the Apology is about setting fear of conflict aside in favor of this more nuanced approach. Instead of slapping an apology on each customer complaint, we can thoughtfully engage with issues by holding humility in one hand and confidence in the other. We can examine how we were mistaken, and also hold to be true that we believe in our process. Thoughtful apologies to our customers can lead to stronger relationships and great learning for everyone.

The Customer Who Complains That Her Flowers Died

Laura Beth

Let me explain how this manifests in the simplest, and most common, of our florist customer complaint scenarios: The Customer Who Complains That Her Flowers Died. This is my WORST fear, and when it happens I freak out.

After I have set my first reaction of fear and dread aside, I can think about how to respond to The Customer. First of all, having flowers die after delivery is extremely frustrating for them, so an apology for causing frustration is definitely in order. And, whether it was my fault or The Customer’s fault that the flowers died, I issue a credit for that item, simply because that’s our policy.

Before I decide what to do next, I need to figure out what kind of issue this is. The Customer Who Complains That Her Flowers Died usually falls into one of two categories. The first one is The Customer Who Killed the Flowers by Accident.

Here is where the nuanced approach to apologizing becomes useful. The Customer Who Killed the Flowers by Accident is probably not aware of what he or she did to kill them. If I simply apologize and move on, they will do it again by mistake. So along with my apology and the credit, I gently inquire about how they treated the flowers after our delivery. For example, if the complaint is about basil and I find out they put it in the cooler, I can explain that basil does best at room temperature and that hopefully we’ll have better luck next time. Ta-dah—we resolved this conflict with a balanced mix of humility and confidence in our product!

The second category is The Customer Who DIDN’T Kill the Flowers by Accident, meaning that…WE DID. If we’ve been working with a customer for a long time, I can safely assume that we are at fault.

For example, we had recurring issues with our scented geranium last year with Ellen. She is an expert at handling local flowers, so when she has issues, I can assume they are the result of my mistakes. First, I apologize for the frustration, then I issue a credit. I also ask if there’s any way we can solve the problem immediately, for example, bring a last-minute order of some other foliage as a replacement.

If the complaint comes during a busy work day, Ellen might not have time to help me figure out how we’re messing up with the geranium, and I might not have time either. So, I ask for photos so that I can figure out the issue. I promise that we will do everything we can to troubleshoot and that I’ll get back to her with a plan to rectify the problem going forward.

Later on, I let her know by email what we’ll do differently in the future. In this case, we were cutting the scented geranium a little too young; we also had trouble with one variety in particular, so we decided to drop that one from our crop plan. And, we bought Quick Dip, and found that it really helped with our foliages’ reliability. Finally, I thank her for her patience with us.

But the learning doesn’t stop there. I had asked Ellen to send me lots of pictures so that I could figure out what was going on. She obliged, and then later that day, she gently explained to me that she doesn’t have time to stop everything and take pictures of dead scented geranium. Now that I know, I can be a lot more sensitive to her needs. It was brave of her to find a compassionate way to tell me I was crossing a line, and her actions perfectly show how putting aside fear of conflict in favor of respectful discussion can be rewarding.

Ellen

Part of our business is being a retail florist. We send flowers out for delivery for special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) and for business and restaurant subscriptions. Most of the recipients are expecting their flowers to “last”. Most consumers don’t know how long flowers should “last,” they just think they should.

For these orders, we try to balance the desire to create an aesthetically pleasing arrangement with the goal of having the flowers “last”. We never use super delicate, or short-lived blooms like poppies in these arrangements. We also stopped using things that people thought looked dead (dogwood blooms, ‘Rosanne Brown’ lisianthus) even though they weren’t dead, to avoid complaints. When we do receive complaints of flowers that died, for whatever reason, we apologize and offer to replace the arrangement with another arrangement.

We always ask for the “dead” arrangement back when we deliver the new arrangement so we can try to determine the problem. Some instances where the flowers were “dead” include once when we forgot to put water in the arrangement (definitely our fault), once when the arrangement tipped over on the porch because it was really windy (mostly our fault), once when the client complained that the paper whites were “wilted” but really that’s just the way their blooms face (not really our fault). The list goes on. In any case, we apologize and offer to replace the arrangement or refund the money.

There is a great book by Jay Baer called Hug Your Haters. In it, Baer explains that if you handle complaints right, you can actually win and keep customers even when they were initially dissatisfied with your product.

The Customer Who Thinks We’re Too Expensive

Laura Beth

All business owners get insane complaints from customers. I have a mental catalogue of some of the more hilarious ones, and I’m sure each of you reading this has a Crazy Person Catalogue too. It’s totally reasonable to decide that some customer complaints are outlandish, and that a quick apology is the best way out. I definitely use “I’m so sorry you felt that way, sounds like we’re not a good fit, bye-bye forever.” on a regular basis!

I sometimes use this refrain with The Customer Who Thinks We’re Too Expensive. There are tons of wholesalers in our area who sell half-dead flowers for dirt cheap; if you like that better than our gorgeous blooms, well, I can’t help you. But there have been times when I felt it was worth engaging with a different kind of apology in mind.

This situation came up recently. I had convinced a floral business that bought only wholesale for many years to get a very small weekly delivery from us. Sometimes the owners would wander over to my two or three buckets of blooms and foliages and comment on how beautiful it all was, but always throw in with a raised eyebrow, “And this is all you brought?” But they never gave me any other feedback, or stated their needs in any way. They also never increased their meager budget, even though they had a walk-in cooler bigger than my living room filled with roses each week. So I kept coming for two years.

One day, the owners came over and said that everything I brought was gorgeous, and then they pointed to a delivery from the wholesaler. The wholesaler’s flowers were smushed into cardboard; they looked wan next to my blooms. The owners said they couldn’t justify buying from us anymore, when they got more flowers for cheaper from the wholesaler. They wanted me to lower my prices.

I looked incredulously at my vibrant display next to their preferred cardboard mess. I could have said, “Okay, we’ll lower our prices for you,” but that would have compromised my values. I could have said, “I’m so sorry you feel that way, sounds like we’re not a good fit, bye-bye forever.” but I decided that after two years of doing business together, we all deserved more. In this case, I could not in good conscience apologize for doing what I believe to be good work. Instead, I could offer them something else:  a respectful discussion.

When I was finished explaining that we pay our employees a livable wage, that we follow organic practices, that we rejuvenate our soils for future generations, that many of our products are actually more affordable than the wholesaler’s (dahlias and lisianthus, for example), that our flowers last twice as long, that they can’t get ninebark anywhere else, etc., etc., etc. …

The owners looked at me quizzically, and I’ll never forget what they said: “You want us to buy from you because it’s the right thing to do?”  As though doing the right thing was a novel concept they had never considered before. Furious as I was with their bleak response, we ended the conversation more or less respectfully. I left knowing I would not work with them again. We could not overcome our conflicting values. But, I’m so glad that I had a chance to engage with them. Perhaps nothing I said stuck; or perhaps they now understand why local flowers are worth more, even if they can’t get behind it.

If we apologized all the time to every customer who didn’t like us, we’d still be working with customers who aren’t a good fit. And, more importantly, we’d never get the chance to educate our customers about why we make the decisions we make. Education about farming and local flowers may not convince every customer, but every once in a while, it strikes a chord. I have just as many examples of customers who became believers in local flowers as customers who refused to listen.

Ellen

For the most part, retail customers who perceive us to be too expensive won’t order with us in the first place. We don’t have many people unhappy with their orders, because we have become good at managing people’s expectations about what they will be receiving.

Where we do hear complaints pretty regularly is at Open Studio or on Saturdays when we’re open to the public for sales of flowers by the stem. We had an experience recently where we bought about 40 bunches of beautiful eucalyptus from one of our local growers. It was tall, sturdy and very fragrant. We did some promotion that we had this beautiful, local eucalyptus available for sale by the stem or bunch, and we had tons of people come by to buy it. We were selling it for $3 a stem or $30 for a 10-stem bunch. We touted the fact that it was locally grown by a family farm in Maryland, that the fragrance was amazing, and that it could also be used dried.

Many people were surprised by the price, and made their surprise and unhappiness known. We still sold all the stems, but there was a lot of “discussion” about the price. What we learned is that most people’s frame of reference for eucalyptus is the bunches sold at Trader Joe’s. These bunches are $3 a bunch. A BUNCH! I don’t know where Trader Joe’s gets its eucalyptus so I couldn’t really speak to that price with our customers.

What I could tell them about is our farmer friends that grew the eucalyptus we were offering. They are a family farm located in Montgomery County, close to Washington, D.C. They are seasoned farmers with over 30 years of experience. They grow the eucalyptus in a hoophouse and care for it almost for an entire year before it’s harvested. They pay their workers a fair wage. All of these things and more go into the price of a stem of eucalyptus. We try to tell a compelling story of the flower, farmer and florist so that the customer finds value in the product. When they don’t, we thank them for their interest.

The Art of the Apology

Ellen

As a florist, apologizing is part of doing business. I wish it wasn’t, but it is. We strive to not to make mistakes, but sometimes we do. We usually feel worse than the unhappy customer when they are unsatisfied. When we make mistakes we still try to give good customer service despite the problems. None of us are perfect, no matter how hard we try. Apologizing is one way to show our customers that we care and we hope they give us another chance to prove ourselves in the future.

Laura Beth

I used to think that dealing with customer conflict was a necessary evil. Like the Comcast person had to apologize when my husband accidentally sliced our Internet cord in half with a shovel, I’d have to say “I’m sorry” when my customers did stupid things. If I wanted to be a business owner, I’d have to just suck it up and apologize constantly.
But that approach to saleswomanship brings me no joy. Instead, I have found such meaningful relationships with customers after years of hearing their needs and affirming mine, of finding middle ground, and of feeling valued when a customer trusts me to hear their issues and make positive changes.

The truth is, the customer is not always right, but neither am I. No one is always right; no one is always wrong. Rather, we are complicated, flawed, precious people. We can learn and grow from each other’s ideas; we can discover new truths that elevate our relationships. And that’s what apologizing is all about.

Ellen Frost

Local Color Flowers

Ellen Frost is owner of Local Color Flowers. Contact her at [email protected]

Laura Beth Resnick

Butterbee Farm

Laura Beth Resnick is owner of Butterbee Farm. Contact her at [email protected]