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Stop Being Stupid! The Customer Isn’t Always Right

by David Brock on February 2nd, 2010

This morning, I was intrigued by a question on LinkedIn.  A person felt offended, a salesperson had criticized the this individual’s company.  The individual was very upset, complaining to the sales person’s management, and posing the question on LinkedIn asking whether anyone else had experienced sales people being impolite and criticizing the customer to the customer and how to handle it.

I don’t know about this specific situation and whether the sales person was offensive or presenting a different point of view to the customer.  It did remind me of an experience a number of years ago.  I was with IBM, an executive for a business unit.  I’d been asked by a sales team to participate in a customer executive briefing.  This had been a particularly difficult situation, the team felt we were about to lose and, apparently, felt “let’s turn Dave loose on them, it couldn’t get worse.

I was doing a presentation about the IBM solution and the results it would present to the customer.  There were about 15 customers in the room, but one individual was being particularly annoying, asking all sorts of strange questions.  At one point, I snapped and said, “Stop being Stupid!”  The room went silent.  The faces of the IBMers lined up in the back of the room turned whiter than their shirts.  I suddenly realized what I had said and wondered, how would I get out of this?  Fortunately, the “offending” customer had the strength of character to ask, “Why do you think I am being stupid?”  He bailed me out and asked the most important question he could have asked, more importantly listened.

The conversation changed.  We had been very concerned about some of the things the customer was trying to do with the system they were buying.  We saw problems in what they were doing, but also some opportunities, if they changed a few things, to achieve far better results.  The team had never been able to catch the customers’ attentions and discuss the possibility of solving not only what they thought their problem was, but to capture other opportunities that would produce results they never anticipated.  Through the courage and good grace of the customer, we were able to shift the conversation and focus the discussion on improving their business, not just satisfying their requirements.

My reaction was rather immature, particularly for a senior executive, and would have failed if it had not been for this one customer having the character and courage to consider a different point of view (he later became a nice friend).  I wouldn’t recommend others do this, but I do think there is an important point to be made, the customer isn’t always right!   Often they are prisoner’s of their own experience and can’t see things differently.  Often, they don’t know what they don’t know and need to be informed and educated.  Often they are so focused on “a tree,” completely missing the other trees or the fact they are in a forest.

As sales people, we have a tremendous opportunity.  Because we work with many customers solving similar problems, we have the opportunity to look at our customer’s businesses differently.  We have the opportunity to help the customer do things differently or to achieve goals they had never conceived, or thought was too difficult.  The sales person who understands the customer, their customers, their competition, and their markets, can provide insight the customer may not see for themselves—transforming the relationship and creating value the customer never anticipated.

Too many sales people don’t take this opportunity to help their customers.  They play it safe, responding only to the customer requirements, not suggesting ways they can improve things.  Alternatively, they know their product and can respond to customer questions about the product, but are clueless about the customer’s business and have no insight about the possibilities or opportunities to improve their businesses.

I talk to sales people daily.  They want to understand how to differentiate themselves, how to create great opportunities within their customers, how to grow their relationship and business with a customer.  Often, these sales people say, “If only the customer would look at things a little differently, we could do so much more for them.”

Sale professionals have a real opportunity to help their customers.  If we believe the customer is always right, and we don’t, politely, challenge them to think about new possibilities, we lose a tremendous opportunity to make a difference for the customer.  If we see changes that could be made and don’t find a way to present them to the customer, we are doing them a disservice.

In my experience with this customer, the conversation that morning changed.  We were able to focus them on solving the problem in a way that produced profound changes.  At lunch, sheepishly, I approached the customer I had called stupid to apologize.  He laughed and was gracious in accepting my apology.  He said something that has remained with me since then, “The only reason I let you get away with it, is that somehow I got that you really cared.  I sensed that we may have been blind and weren’t listening.  I knew your reaction was unnatural, so I decided that we might change the way we looked at things.” 

Caring about your customer’s business and their success is critical.  Sometimes you need to challenge them and help them see it.  Don’t be foolish like I was, but remember the customer may not be right and have the courage to, politely, present an alternative.  Playing it safe isn’t necessarily right.

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