Jul 3

What If the Customer Isn’t Right?

My husband and I were having dinner last night at a lovely seafood restaurant in Columbus, Ohio when we witnessed one of the worst displays of boorishness I’ve seen in years.

A diner at the table next to ours berated the server – loudly – for a full 10 minutes when his steak came out and wasn’t prepared to his liking. Never mind that she immediately offered to send his meal back, she got a full-blown lecture on the differences between medium-rare and medium, how he was “testing” the restaurant before bringing in a large corporate group, how no one ever gets his steak quite right – and on and on. And on.

The manager was called out and similarly scolded. His meal, and his daughter’s, were prepared again. When the new meals were delivered, and the server stood patiently, joking with the diner while he cut into his second steak and declared it passable.


His server was also our server, Jenna, so we tried to counteract his rudeness by praising the quality of our meal, its beautiful presentation and our wonderful service. After he exited, Jenna leaned on our table for a few minutes and we commiserated.

“I’m learning patience,” she said. “The old Jenna would have blow up and been in tears. But the new Jenna? I just stood there and took it and didn’t let it bother me – I mean, what else can you do?”

Her question sparked a brief discussion about the old adage, The customer is always right. While the principle behind that phrase is inspirational, the longer I practice PR the more I’m convinced that’s not always the case.

We occasionally get new clients – and even some current clients – who flurry in with immediate needs: I need a brochure! I need a social media campaign! I need a fill-in-the-blank!

This has become our cue to pause, take a breath and ask some questions: What are you trying to accomplish? What are your goals for this project? What does success look like for you?

We never ask the combative, why do you need a brochure or a fill-in-the-blank? We recognize, even if the clients don’t, that they are starting with the tactic, rather than the goal.

It’s our job to ask them to take a collective step back so we can reboot the process as a discussion. We may still wind up on brochure or social media campaign as the end result, but we will have had the opportunity to explore the different tools in our toolbox before assisting the client in selecting the best one.

That doesn’t mean we always agree with everything our clients want to do. Recent case in point: We had a department within one of our longtime clients push-push-pushing for a particular social media campaign, complete with its own hash tag. I was invited to join the discussion and present my recommendations, which were not taken.

Even though I didn’t agree with the decision, and still don’t, I walked out in full support of the campaign. You’ll never catch me whispering destructively from the wings, won’t-work-bad-idea-change-course.

Sometimes the client is just dead wrong – or worse. Years ago, I was working on a litigation issue for a first-time client. In running through media prep, we identified one particularly sticky issue that we knew would come up. The attorney on the case breezily said he would lie if the topic came up. Appalled, I explained why this wasn’t an appropriate response and then suggested a workable answer.

During the interview, that sticky question arose as I knew it inevitably would. The attorney paused, winked at me, and lied to the reporter.

After the interview, I called the reporter back and corrected the error, saying that the attorney misspoke. I then fired the client and her attorney and have declined to accept matters from that firm in the decade since.

Fortunately, our clients are, almost always, right. But in those rare cases where they are not, my team has the tools needed to edge them back on a better path – and my full support if we just can’t get there.


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