The customer is NOT always right: But you better ask the right questions..

English: Cutaway drawing, illustration of an i...

Cutaway drawing, illustration of an inkjet printer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is one of the articles born of my own personal experience with the customer service of what I consider one of the best companies in the computer industry HP. To make a long story (over one hour) short after spending over one hour attempting to set up an inkjet printer and over 25 minutes in the phone with their customer service, I decided to return the printer and buy a competitor. While I don’t still know if the competitor printer will work as I expected, the inability of HP’s CS team to properly answer my questions and address my concerns make me decide to change brands. In my opinion if they can’t help me with a basic setup (the printer hardware was stuck and will not even complete the boot cycle), how can I expect them to help me later if I have a real problem.

Now before all I want to recognize that I have worked with HP for over 20 years (pretty much since they got into the personal computer business).. I have sold and supported their computers, printers, hubs, switches, and pretty much any product that they have made for the PC industry. I have also outsourced IT field services to HP in over 25 countries and during all my experience the company, its products, and its people have always been at the top of the game. It is one of the few companies that I can today still trust to do business with a handshake and trust that they will always be there for you and your customers.

Assessing how Indian farmers manage climate an...

That’s one of the main reasons why I was so surprised with my call to their CS team today when their first line support person seem to be only interested in obtaining the necessary product registration information (my name, phone number, where did I purchase the product) before even asking me what was the nature of the problem. After that once we finally got to start the troubleshooting her only suggestion was to turn off the printer and restart it.. After I did (and then confirmed that I had done the same 4 times already) she just put me on hold to ask her supervisor what to do next… And her suggestion.. well, just replace the printer..

So going back to the title of the article, I am sure that I am not always right, but I expect the person on the other side of the interaction to buy into the issue and find me the right answer (not just an answer to get me off the phone and clock in the next call). As part of my professional experience I have served in multiple roles in the international IT industry, and have seen customers at their best, but also at their worst; and I have never seen a problem being solved by ignoring it, or by bullying the customer, or the employee (if you are a manager) to give you the answers you want just because.

One of my preferred customers from our lovely city of NY used to call and ask for one of my support buddies (EF), or me, and her calling card was “tell them that it is The Bi..h calling, that I need them to call me back”.. The fun part is that while that scared off many tech support engineers we knew that she was actually a really nice (but businesslike) lady, that was just tired of support people that had no clue about how to truly solve a problem; and that will waste her time in the phone by asking unnecessary questions and not really looking to solve the issue.

Telecom tower

Telecom tower (Photo credit: nicolasnova)

Another of my preferred customers a very large telecommunications provider always had unreasonable demands, and terrorized his account team based on the fact that their purchases were usually over 30% of the territory quota any year. Based on that they just ran over the account team and got pretty much their wish every time. To that customer once I had to tell them that we (the company I used to work for at the time) were as big as they were, so when I say no was not based on the lack of resources, but just that what they wanted was not right. I give that VP my business card and told him that if they had a true emergency I will lease a plane if needed to get the equipment and products anywhere, any time, BUT that if he called me everyday for small stuff I was going to send him a bill for services since he knew that emergencies didn’t happen every day. I’m glad to say that in five (5) years I never hear from that VP at all :)..

So what do the two cases have in common, basically that I always asked the customers the tough questions needed to find out what their true problems were, and then solved their problems; and that in those same two years (each one in a different role and company) I was recognized in the first company as being “the best support engineer of the whole company” and in the second one as being Excellent (basically the top 5% or less of all employees).

While the customer is important, here are some reasons why they are not always right:

  • Customers are not really sure what they really need or want
  • If a customer does not know the answers, they make it up
  • Customer expectations are not always rational

In addition to the previous reasons, we need to remember that customers must be defined above and beyond those individuals or companies that purchase products and/or services from our company. Customers are all individuals and organizations that receive products or services from us. As it happens in supply chain a customer chain could include:

Export Process. Courtesy of

Export Process. Courtesy of

a) End users that purchase products and/or services from your company are customers of your company

b) The company employees are the customers of the company HR department

c) The company is the customer of their own materials or OEM product suppliers

d) The OEM manufacturers are the customer of the raw materials suppliers

e) The raw material suppliers are the customers of the transportation and financial industry suppliers

f) And so on and so forth..

Asking the right questions and providing the customers with the right answer, will not only help your customer, but also if consistently done will help your company and yourself professionally. In a time where ethics is not being taught anymore in business schools, we suffer from one crisis after another, and we see companies like Enron, Nortel, and recently too many financial institutions to even list here, an ethical and  consistent answer is not only rare to find, but priced by customers all over.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

In one case I remember one regional sales person calling me and telling me that his customer didn’t want to sign a multimillion dollar contract just because they were not happy and concerned with the quality of the service. Since I was the regional operations and service manager, and had been this specific customer consultant engineer before I asked the salesperson to tell the customer´s VP that they had my cell phone number from before, and that I was still the regional manager. That if they had any questions they could call me directly,  and was done with the call. After a few days I decided to call back the salesperson to follow up on the contract issue and his answer was “once the customer hear my message, they just signed the contract right away”, that they knew that I would be there for them if needed. That was one of the sweetest moments in my professional life, the fact that after more than 5 years the customer still trusted my word enough to sign on without even having to call me to verify it.

For those of you that conduct your business in the international arena, you must remember that in addition to all of the classical issues related to customer service, you will encounter the additional challenges associated with different cultural expectations, extended logistics chains, international monetary transactions, different laws, and even changing customs and government regulations. Join us and stay tuned for a future article dealing directly with the issue of selling overseas.
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