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The Customer Isn’t Always Right, but the Customers Are Always Right

Those who have worked in retail (I worked at Radio Shack while in high school) almost definitely have been taught that the old adage that "the customer is always right." Those same people probably would also be the first to say that it's total crap -- customers are often wrong. From small mom-and-pop shops to Southwest Airlines, companies are increasingly firing their more toxic customers, realizing that happy employees provide good customer service, and crappy customers make employees unhappy.

On the web, we're supposed to pay a lot of attention to the needs of the customer. After all, we tend to accept that in general, a great customer experience yields whatever we want: more sales, regular customers, greater engagement, or whatever. So how do we balance these seemingly mutually-exclusive perspectives? We don't. The solution is in the aggregate.

Toxic Customers

Toxic customers are those who make your life miserable, and have no chance of ever really being happy. Alexander Kjerulf has a great article about them, and how they can single-handedly bring a raincloud over your company, so I won't go much into it, save for Kjerulf's opening excerpt, from Nuts! the story of Southwest Airlines:

One woman who frequently flew on Southwest, was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.

She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.

Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s [Kelleher, CEO of Southwest] desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’”

Kelleher knew that no matter what she got, the Pen Pal would be back for more, abusing and berating his employees flight after flight. There was no winning her over, and she was a drain on resources and morale. She just wasn't a good fit, and so he fired her. It makes perfect business sense -- sometimes customers aren't just mistaken, they're flat out wrong, and treating them as though they're right is bad for business.

So, forget customers and users?

Of course not. Instead, though, consider that customer and user feedback is most valuable in the aggregate, not the particular. If one person, even a very important person, thinks your user flow doesn't work, and everyone else seems to think it does, that one person should not drive a major revision of your flow. If a decent portion of your aggregate feedback is suggesting a change in strategy, though, it might be worth listening.

What is a decent portion? That depends on your needs. If your audience is the masses, and your tech-savvy beta testers seem to be having no problem with your interface, but a good portion of your less-savvy testers are having show-stopping issues, it might be worth a change. Even if that portion is currently only two percent, fingers are crossed that they'll eventually represent ninety-eight percent of your users when you hit it big.

But don't be afraid to tell Mrs. Crabapple that you'll miss her.


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