The customer is not always right, but treating the customer right is

The customer is always right. I’ve heard this phrase throughout my life, as have you.

I served as editor and publisher of a group of small-town weekly and twice-weekly newspapers. One of our bigger specials of the year was the annual graduation section. We’d run a photo and bio of every high school graduate in our community. Alongside it was all manner of congratulations ads from businesses, parents, grandparents, and the like.

Huge section. Very popular. Big money maker. For the smallest papers in my group, this could be 7 or8 percent of their gross revenue. My largest paper, a million plus in gross revenue, still managed to gross about $17,000 off this section. Good commissions for the sales reps. An important section to the financial health of the paper.

The Customer

It started with raised voices. I heard an employee, whom I’d had problems with and whom I did not realize at that moment only had about 10 or 15 minutes of employment left – arguing with another lady. The customer was speaking in Spanish and broken English. Another employee, who spoke fluent Spanish, was trying to interpret and calm everyone down.

The customer
Graduation ads have long been a great money-maker for small-town papers.

I walk up to the front and step into the situation.

The customer was upset. She’d placed an ad congratulating her daughter who graduated high school. I think the 10-column inches, which is one of the standard sizes we sold for a section such as this. She did not pay for color. She did not pay for the preferred placement. She had been emailed a proof of the ad in advance, and she’d approved the proof. The ad ran correctly and as ordered.

This was the foundation for the employee pushing back on the lady. And in a sense, the employee was right. The ad was right. Nobody disputed it.

So, what in the heck?

The plot thickens

At one point, the employee started arguing with the lady again, while I’m talking to the customer. She calls the customer a name in Spanish. A very unkind name. I did drug enforcement in the Coast Guard and had done enough drug boardings to know what the word she said meant. I told her to wait in the back and she responded if I was going to fire her just bleeping do so. So I did.

When she left, I gave the lady what my boss referred to as a “good listening to.”

The lady’s family was from Mexico. Mom was working two jobs. One at the harbor unloading shrimp as the shrimp boats returned to the harbor – a typical day laborer job in our community. The other was cleaning houses. I didn’t ask, but I kind of doubt they were in the U.S. legally. I could be wrong.

But the daughter was a solid student. She mostly made As with the occasional B thrown in. She was active in a couple of organizations. Played softball.

And this was the highest level of education anyone in their family had ever achieved. Justifiable pride.

The problem is that the 10-inch black and white ad was placed atop a half-page (64 inches) full-color ad. To the mother, this made her pride in her daughter’s accomplishment look cheap.

The mother did not pay for color, a larger ad, or preferred placement. She approved the ad. She received what she paid for.

I gave her a new, larger ad, in color. It ran in a regular edition of the paper. This seemed to make mom happy. The issue was resolved.

The point

I do believe the adage that the customer is always right is simply incorrect. Sometimes the customer isn’t, whether by design or accident.

I also believe that even if the customer is wrong, they should be treated right. They should be treated fairly, with consideration and compassion.

Just treat the customer right. That’s the point.

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