What to Do When the Customer Is Wrong

A business is not always able to give clients what they want. Here's how to respond.

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By Wade Foster

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Every business owner has heard the mantra "the customer is always right." While that's true to the extent that customers usually know what they want, it doesn't mean that you're always going to be able to give them what they want.

If a customer walked into a McDonald's and asked for a haircut, an employee is not going to provide it. Of course, everyone knows what McDonald's offers. As a startup, this might not be the case.

Customers may think you offer a certain service when you don't. That's when they start asking for haircuts rather than hamburgers, and that's when you need to accommodate the requests that you can and say no to the ones you can't.

Here's the first mistake most startups make: saying yes to everything. If you bend over backward to accommodate every customer's requests, you're going to end up with a company that has no clear identity. That's bad for your business and your customers. Here are a few examples of when you need to say no:

Related: When to Fire That, Er, Abusive or Disruptive Customer

1. Saying no can be the exact right move.

When customers ask for something your company doesn't offer. If you don't offer it, there's a good chance that providing this service either doesn't make sense for your company or isn't within the firm's area of expertise. These are both good reasons to say no.

When customers ask for something that isn't essential. A certain app or product feature may be important to them, but you need to decide whether offering it is right for your company.

When customers want to pay in a different manner. Don't lower your prices for one customer. If customers consistently raise issues about the prices, research the market to find out if changing your prices will work.

The right reasons to say no. If you have certain customers who are persistently pushing you to take a major step in a different direction, you may need to fire them. But first ask yourself some questions: Do they want a better product than what you currently have? Are there other customers like them? If so, then you may need to consider changing your product.

But in some instances walking away is better. Walk away if saying yes has the potential to hurt other customers down the line. And yes, losing focus will hurt your customers in the long run.

Losing focus isn't just a matter of the company's branding; your team becomes confused, too. Every shift in direction makes your employees' jobs harder, and saying yes to every client request can cause major internal conflict.

Denying a customer request isn't easy, but losing one customer is better than abandoning focus or your business failing entirely. You need to say no but you need to do it right. Here are some methods:

Related: 7 Damaging Myths About Customer Engagement to Promptly Discard

2. Saying no correctly.

Acknowledge the customer's request. Show the person that you understand what he or she is asking for and why. This gesture shows that you genuinely care and that you're listening.

Tell the customer why it shouldn't be a top priority for him (or her) or why it isn't a top priority for you -- and explain what is top priority. The person will often agree with your decision and respect your company for your being honest.

Tell the person you'll research the request. Offer to keep the customer updated if your company ever does offer what's being requested.

Refer the client to another vendor. This is a great way to instill trust and maintain a positive relationship with customers after you've said no. If the request is really important to that person, you're still providing a way for him or her to receive what's desired.

When you consider a customer request, be sure that you're thinking about your company's vision and purpose. After all, you're the leader. It's your job to keep your team on track and show people why your existing product or service will work for them.

Related: How to Deal With the Customer Who Isn't Right

Wade Foster

Co-Founder and CEO, Zapier

Wade Foster is the co-founder and CEO of San-Francisco-based Zapier, a company offering a service that makes it easy to move data among web apps to automate tedious tasks. He is also an entrepreneur in residence for Office Depot’s SmallBizClub.

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