This principle comes from the experience realized by many in the food and beverage service industries but equally applies to NPOs and any organization that serves the public. We have all heard the slogan "the customer is always right". But, I am here to tell you what you already know: sometimes the customer is not right. I know it sounds like heresy but the twist I like to put on this is simple: there are certain customers who may make life miserable for you; and, when they occupy excessive staff time and continue to plague the organization no matter what you do to please them, it is sometimes more strategically important to ask those customers to leave, even if just for a while. However, having said that, I emphasize that the way in which you ask those customers to leave is to remember that even when they are leaving, those customers are still your customers. That means that one day, they may decide to come back to you and you will want the door open and their access to be as friendly as it can be. And, most importantly, you want to protect your hard-earned reputation for good service to customers and the best way to preserve that is allow that troublesome customer to leave gracefully, without rancor. It is not unusual in today's NPOs, especially in those that offer direct services, for customers to be able to pick and choose their providers. Encouraging a dissatisfied customer to try to find another, perhaps perceived better alternative, after you've done all you can to please that customer, is a calculated step to both reassure such customers that you are dealing from a position of strength and that you wish for their search to yield what it is they are seeking. Help them to identify alternatives that may be suitable to their purposes. Share with them all the information you can that might be useful to their search. And always let them know that whatever the outcome, you thank them for their business, and welcome them to contact you whenever they may wish to do so.
If you're as good as you think you are, you should be perfectly comfortable letting someone go to a competing agency or organization without fear of losing business. If you really are the better choice, those customers may find their way back to you and be only too happy to be a satisfied customer once they have had a chance to compare what they experienced before.
Case In Point
In an agency of which I was Executive Director, we had a family with signifiant issues involving a young adult member who was receiving services from us. His mother was increasingly worried about his deteriorating condition related to seizures that were troubling and more and more uncontrollable. We worked diligently, for years, with all his treating professionals, continued to train our staff to be able to manage his frequent and sometimes terrible (for him) seizures without his being injured in any way. Despite our best efforts, and despite being as supportive as we could be with his mother, she became increasingly troublesome for staff who were getting burned out, not so much with providing her son's care but with her constant haranguing. Trying to understand her maternal concern was a part of what we wanted to be always sensitive to, but it was clear that we would be heading into more and more head on collisions no matter what we did to assure his safety. In direct communication, I offered her the opportunity to find other agencies with whom she might like to try to contract. As we moved along in our deliberate and supportive conversations about alternatives, she made the decision to stay with us. In the final analysis, she came to see that we were indeed doing everything we could and that what we offered was as good as she was going to find in the community we served, indeed better than anyone else. We never threatened. We never faltered in our commitment to her son. We simply allowed her to see what else might be out there. She came to the realization that we would welcome her and her son, any time she needed us, whether she decided to leave us or not. In the end, this customer was right but only after she was wrong. But she was always our customer. And, we treated her with the respect she deserved. The lesson: be aware that the customer, although not always right, is always a customer- present, past or future.