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Massage Today
August, 2001, Vol. 01, Issue 08

Is the Customer/Client Always Right? Part II

By Perry Isenberg

If you recall, my June column asked the question, "Is the customer/client always right?" (Editor's note: accessible on line at The response to that article was so overwhelming, and the opinions so varied and passionate, I decided use this month's column to present (and comment on) what some of your fellow readers had to say.

I've selected the comments randomly, and withheld the identity of the authors. I ended the column by asking whether I was wrong or right in returning a pair of running shoes. What follows are a few of the responses to that question:

"I enjoy your column -- it's direct, honest and always interesting. In response to the question you posed, I think the storeowner was right. Small, locally owned businesses cannot compete with the big chains, and that's why they are disappearing, which is a tragedy."

"I believe in treating the customer as if they are always right because they make it possible for my business to exist. Most people are reasonable, and if they feel they're right, I should value their opinion along with their patronage. In your situation, I can easily see your point. It is funny how people can spend thousands of dollars doing mass marketing, but pass up opportunities to win individual customer loyalty. To me, this was a perfect situation for him to give you the same deal he was willing to give to the masses and gain repeat business. If it were my shoe store, I would have had a very similar conversation with you (I would want you to know that I was making an exception for you), and then I would have given you the money back. This has been a long-winded way of saying that in your situation, once again the customer is always right."

"I thought your article and your response to the sporting goods store was lame. As a practicing massage therapist in a competitive city (Naples, Florida), I set my prices in stone and offer discounts only for follow-up massages. Many people tell me that others offer a better rate and better discounts. I say, "Go for it." They come back because I offer quality service, not necessarily the best price or quick discount."

"I read your article and here's what I think: Since you came home with one day still left while the sale was going on, I would have returned the shoes and then repurchased them at the sale price."

"I always enjoy your column. You provide good advice, and solid perspectives (that just happen to match mine!). Massage therapists in general need the kind of information you provide. With regard to the shoe-return situation, in general I would say that sort of situation is a very gray area and could go either way, depending on specifics. Thanks again for all the good work!"

"If you do that with you do it with new cars and every other piece of merchandise you buy and then go look at the sale flyers? I think you just have to take the loss and swallow it yourself. Is it any different than playing the stock market...sometimes you win...sometimes you lose... stop complaining. Suck it up...believe me I have been in your situation many times too!! Not that I like it any better than you."

"If I had been the store manager at the time of purchase, I would have said, "Sir, these shoes will be on sale at 40% off in a few days. If you'd like, I'll put them aside until then." As far as your situation, it was worth a shot. I probably would have given you a break. Customer service requires flexibility. Anyway, I find your column very helpful, keep it coming."

"Your comparing the Home Depot return policy vs. the small shoe store reminds me of a teenager telling his parents he should be able to do (something) because his friend's parents allow his friend to do it. Every company should have their own policy as every parent to grow their children. I think the small running shoe storeowner is correct in handling the situation as he did."

"I just wanted you to know how much I've been enjoying your articles. I'm a former business owner of a massage clinic, which employed therapists, and I also hold a degree in marketing. Many times I can have empathy for both sides of the "counter," but never more so as with your last article. I can't say exactly what I would have done if I were in your shoes (no pun intended). I liked your opposition's quote of "Sales have start and end dates..." but you also have a point with "exceptions to the rules". Would you have accepted a discount on one pair of shoes, recognizing you are in a give-and-take situation? I don't see either one of you as right or wrong, but I do see a battle of wills with no winners, but who lost more? You lost valuable time, but he lost a valuable sale, with no hope of repeat business and worse, no positive "word-of-mouth" advertising. In the end, the customer usually comes out ahead, not because he's right, but because he has less to loose than the business. It should be a lesson to business owners: You're the boss and you have the final say, but if you stick to your guns you'll probably end up shooting yourself in the foot. His position is more reasonable, although whether it was wise is an entirely different matter. I don't know if there is a right or wrong here. I think that if it had been me, I would have tried to get the owner to reimburse me the difference in the price, but if he would not, I probably would have kept the shoes if I liked them and they were a good fit. Shopping for shoes is a major pain."

"I believe you were wrong to expect the sale price when you had already purchased them before they went on sale. Be thankful you found shoes to fit at all since you have hard to fit feet. I'm sorry to hear you bit off your nose to spite your face."

"I just finished reading your article. And I appreciate your position, but rules are rules. Why didn't you return them and then turn right around and repurchase them, at the sale price. I can see that the store wasn't going to give you a discount, but since they took the return, you could have repurchased them. That is probably what I would have done or tried to do."

"I say, good riddance! I would not want you as my customer anyway! It doesn't hurt to ask, but I believe your response to be childish and irresponsible. You say you don't have time to shop, but you took the time to revisit the store and try to squeeze the $60 credit you were hoping to get."

"In the scenario you described, if I was in your place, I would have done everything you did, except for returning the shoes for a refund."

So there you have it, folks -- a mixed bag of responses. Now here's my response: The title of this column is Business Insights -- it is not about ethics or morality. I don't make this point to say that you shouldn't maintain ethics and morals in your business life, but to emphasize that 50% of the respondents failed to address the business issue I presented.

I need to state my position on being a business owner. Owning a business, and having it become profitable with a loyal customer base, is a privilege. It should be appreciated, not taken lightly or for granted. I have little interest or patience for business owners who forget how privileged and blessed they are to attract and keep customers.

One of the biggest mistakes Henry Ford made in building his automobile business was to say "You can have any color you want as long as it is black" - hello competition! My hope in reprinting responses is to also provide my response that may give you an optional perspective.

The consuming population did not ask for chain stores to dominate business to the point that small businesses disappear. As our lives became busier, and convenience became important, it was the small business owner that failed to respond to our needs.

Our economy functions because of supply and demand; competition and choices; consumers and merchants; etc. Large corporations do not become large chains because of pricing alone. They become large in part because they offer greater selection, unbelievable customer service and more often than not, do things consistently better than mom-and-pop stores.

My actions were justified. I went back to the store while the "sale was still on," and spent over $200 two days prior to the sale. This particular business owner was absolutely wrong. He already had me as a customer, and he chose to let me leave the store empty-handed.

I suggest that part of the reason small businesses have disappeared is because of poorly skilled owners who lacked the vision and resources to meet the changing needs of the consumer. I do not believe a small business can truly survive if it does not grow, and to expect consumers to adjust to a business, rather than the other way around, is not smart thinking. Remember, having customers is a privilege, not a right.

As a consumer in a free-market system, I see no reason to support stores that can't manage themselves. I also see no reason to spend more for a service or product than necessary. That does not mean cheap, less quality. It means if two identical products are available, I should buy it where it is less expensive. Obviously, at times services are difficult to compare to products.

This storeowner had myself, my wife and my children as customers for life, but decided it wasn't worth it. I decided it was better to put the $60 into my kids' education fund than leave it with a storeowner who didn't deserve my business.

Assuming all things are equal, a merchant-customer relationship is about providing product and service to consumers at a reasonable profit, while doing the right things to build a loyal customer base.

Shopping for everyday products is not like playing the stock market. With stocks, if you lose money you don't have a choice. Where we purchase shoes, and at what price, is our choice and ours alone. To suggest that a comparison exists between how one purchases products and how one raises their children seems a stretch. Home Depot is a retail store selling nonperishable goods, and so is the shoe store -- period. If your policies do not allow for the flexibility needed to deal with different customers, under different circumstances at different times, I suggest you revise the policies.

For years, companies have had policies related to the rights of employees. I think you'll agree that over the years, corporations have needed to change those policies to keep in touch with the needs of the workforce (i.e. pregnancy leave, job protection, etc.).

Unions protect employees. Choices protect the consumer. If a small business cannot compete to satisfy the needs of the consumer, they will go out of business. The onus is not on the consumer to adapt to store policies. If you go to a restaurant and order a specific dish that includes French fries and you ask for vegetables instead and they accommodate you, that's wonderful. If the same situation happens at another restaurant and they refuse to switch the side dish (yes, they do have other dishes with vegetables) wouldn't you scratch your head and say, "what's with this restaurant?"

I'm not the type of person who "goes with the flow," "believes everything I read," or accepts things just because "that's the way it is." Consumers are obligated to help businesses grow by bringing issues to their attention (positive and negative), and businesses are obligated to constantly meet the needs of the consumer.

Remember, I bought the shoes two days before the sale started and was back in the store while the sale was still ongoing. This fact is important. I didn't come back two weeks later, or come back with the shoes worn, or with any other extenuating circumstance that might have complicated an exchange or return. The reader who responded with "Good riddance -- I wouldn't want you as a customer anyway" obviously doesn't agree that having customers is a privilege, and that customer comments and actions can help you grow your business.

Let's apply this discussion to your practice. If you sell gift certificates that expire, do you honor the certificate after the expiration date? If your answer is "yes," keep on truckin'! If your answer's "no," I suggest you revise your policy. You received the money, so please provide the service. Remember, late is still better than never, and you might get new clients after you've treated your potential new clients with the service they deserve.

Let me know what you think about this column, or any of my other columns in Massage Today. In the meantime, be healthy, be good, and stay focused and motivated.

Click here for previous articles by Perry Isenberg.


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