Is the Customer Always Right?

I had an interesting (if frustrating) experience this week, one which I took a lot of learning away from in terms of the client/vendor relationship, customer service and my own attitudes towards others.

I’d decided to buy a new Bluetooth Hands free Kit for my Toyota Prius, and have it professionally fitted. A few years ago, I’d used a company based on-line, who had given me advice and helped me decide on the correct Bluetooth Hands free Kit and cables required for my previous car. They had communicated each of the steps well, and the engineer turned up on time and fitted the kit to my satisfaction.

Anyone who knows me will know I’m about as savvy with Motor cars as a High Court Judge is with the line-up at the Glastonbury festival – i.e. I’m fairly clueless. Just like our clients turn to us for trusted expert advice on IT, I in turn do the same for Car Audio advice.

I therefore naturally turned to “my” provider once again for a car kit for my Prius. I’d previously owned a Parrot Bluetooth kit, and so found this same kit on their web-site and e-mailed them for a quote. Promptly, they phoned me back and asked me what mobile phone I would be using with the Parrot – in my case, a HTC. The lady I was speaking to went on to inform me that they’d experienced quite a few issues between the Parrot kits and the HTC, and so she’d advise I buy a Bury CC9060 kit instead.

I appreciated them saving me the frustration of a potentially incompatible system, and so gladly took their advice and ordered the Bury system. It’s at this point that (unbeknownst to me) a snag would hit.

She asked me “Do you have an Amplified Audio system?”.

To which I answered “No, I don’t think so”.

Payment was taken, a date for installation organised, and a few days later the kit arrives at my home, ready for the engineer visit to fit it.

In the meantime, I receive the invoice through the post and I find the price I’d been quoted over the ‘phone didn’t include VAT. Understandable, if you deal with Business customers every day, but a bit of a surprise to me.

Come the day of the installation, the engineer, Jason, arrives at my door (he’s the same engineer who fitted my previous car kit years ago, and even remembers me) and gets ready to do the job. Except he can’t. Because the right leads aren’t included. Apparently I have a JBL Amplified Stereo System, which come as standard with the Toyota Prius, and so he can’t fit the Hands free kit.

Jason is patient enough to wait whilst I ‘phone a couple of nearby Auto Audio specialists (one of whom is a client of ours) who are very helpful, but don’t have the cable in stock.

Clearly frustrated, Jason laments that this is the 3rd job he’s had cancelled today (it’s now clear he’s therefore a sub-contractor, not an employee) and that he will be out of pocket. He also shares with me that he’d expect “my” vendor to hit me with a £65 cancellation charge for the job. I don’t share with Jason that I’m incredibly frustrated and feeling stupid because I’ve taken time away from work to make this appointment, but am no closer to having the work completed, and appear to be another £100 or so out of pocket due to being clueless about motors.

Lesson For The Engineer – When something has gone wrong due to the customer appearing to have made a wrong choice, adding to their frustration by highlighting the additional cost they’ll incur doesn’t help the situation.

Jason drives away, and I call the provider to find out what the score is. They confirm I’ll need a special set of cables for the Amplified Speaker system, and they’ll obtain a price for me.

A few hours later, I receive an e-mail from Gavin at the provider which explains “The leads needed are premium, but I can get them and they are in stock. If we take back the other lead the cost for Jason to come back and supply and fit those leads is £77.26 including VAT. this is trade/cost price and gives you a saving of £62.”

Again, I’m not expert in Car cables, but £77 for a cable lead seems expensive.

Me: “Can I ask – does the £77.26 include any sort of cancellation fee for your engineer? Your engineer attending said there would be a cancellation fee, and frankly, I wouldn’t be happy about that as I’m no car expert and so that’s why I turned to <you> – to ensure I was guided to the best option.”

The response: “The price includes the cost that we pay for the cables and Jason’s revisit.

When we book installations we always ask if the stereo is standard or amplified, in this case you had the upgraded amplified stereo. We don’t want to make money over this mistake of information given so we always go back at cost, it costs us time and the engineer time so nobody wins in the situation and it is incredibly rare this happens.

We we were talking about just the leads as part of the install they would be £54.99 and £6.99 delivery, so if you look at it that way we have only charged £23.21 for a revisit instead of £89.99, and despite our engineer cost being about double that cost.”

I’m losing confidence in them at this point, as this feels like they didn’t want to mention the phrase “Cancellation Charge” for fear of me querying it, so tried to gloss over it.

Lesson For Gavin – Always be transparent.

My response was: “Thanks for explaining the situation. I appreciate your argument – but I’d like to make two points.
1. I’m a returning customer to <you>. I did so because previously, you helped me find and install the correct Bluetooth Handsfree kit for my previous motor car.
2. I’m an absolute novice with Cars and so I turn to people like <you> for expert advice. I stated in my initial enquiry that I owned a Toyota Prius 2007 model, and when asked if I owned an Amplified Stereo, I stated “I don’t think so”. I’d really expect <you> to use your expertise in this area to determine if that was truly the case or not.
Jason was clearly frustrated when he visited and was unable to undertake the work – citing that this was his 3rd cancellation of the day. In my instance though, I did not cancel my appointment.
In short, I relied on trusted advice and now feel that this has cost me more than I’d initially budgeted for. I join Jason in his frustration.
As a business owner myself, I can tell you that I totally appreciate your point of view, but if you look at things from my perspective as a client, you’ve gone from having a raving fan of your services who trusts your advice and would (and has) refer you to others, to somebody who now feels that isn’t the case.”

The response: “hi Richard,

Many thanks for your email as you know we do value customer service very heavily and technically in line with our procedures and terms and conditions we could have charged you the full £89.99 and full retail of the audio leads as we were miss advised about your stereo, but we do not want to make money out of this, just cover our costs, which I see as good customer service and not something I am aware of any of our competitors ever doing.

With regards as us using our expertise in working out which stereo you have we have no possible way of doing that without seeing the vehicle. We have to rely on the customer giving us the correct car make, car model, registration, stereo and any details that may deem the vehicle set up non standard. As I say we have instances like this very rarely out of tens of thousands of installations, and stated above because of this we only want to cover our costs on this.

Jason may have been frustrated as he wants to get each job done from a customer care position, but his other jobs that cancelled were not for <us> and don’t worry because Jason gets paid for all those cancellations including any from <us> and including yours.

The difference in price from if we had been told the correct stereo is only £23.21, so I think we have been fair as it could have been £89.99.

With regards your mentioning of trust and advise we have no control over which stereo you have other than what you tell us. We can not possibly tell our end and if we are told standard stereo not amplified then we would book it as such. If you had said I do not know it could be amplified or it may not, then we would have requested you contact the dealer, or refer to your hand book.

I feel our solution to this has proved we are trusted, do give good advise and are customer service focussed, all on a product that has low margins well below the margins our service deserve.

However I have spoken with Jason, and based on the loyal regular work with give him he is prepared to waiver his cost, which when you consider his time and fuel and a lost slot for earnings I think this is generous and in line with <our> customer service levels.”

At this point it’s clear that Gavin from my provider is passionate about his job, but he’s quoting Terms and Conditions, and re-iterating that I’m in the wrong, and that they only sell what the client specifically asks for, which is strange given that I’d original asked to purchase a Parrot, but been given (presumably good) advice not to.

My response was:

“Thanks for the e-mail – I appreciate the time you’ve spent on this query, and I’m happy to proceed on <date> for Jason’s visit.
It’s interesting to view this back and forth between us, as it gives us both a chance to try to understand the client/vendor relationship.
Here’s an article you might find interesting – – I’ve learnt that quite often, even when the customer is technically wrong (as you clearly feel is true in this case based on your e-mail), provided you empathise with the customer rather than try to defend your position, things tend to turn out better.
Anyway, thanks again for your help – and I hope you have a great weekend.”

So I’d considered the matter closed – that we’d move on – oh boy was I wrong…


What more do you want from us? You advised us the WRONG stereo, and we have wavered your cancellation fee, we are not charging for our credit card surcharge, we are delivering the goods for free and providing the leads at cost!?!?!?!?

Now I would expect you to be pleased and impressed by that. Besides this link is not relevant to all situations and all business, for example if this was a high margin industry then you would expect for people to be more lenient, also a customer can be wrong, not technically wrong but wrong. Also if money is involved then yes the customer can be wrong and you have to have terms and conditions when money is involved in a potential error. It is clear on our website, quote, installation guide, terms and conditions that we have cancellation fees in place for such situations. In this instance then the you can not use the ‘customer is always right’ scenario. We have an engineer visiting you at a cost to the engineer and our company, because of this certain criteria needs to be meet.

Trading standards and the law would back us on this, we get all our procedures authorised by them prior to launch. I have to admit at this stage I am very close to wanting to remove the offer of doing all this at cost/a loss and reverrt back to our terms and conditions!

However despite all this, and despite only making a small margin for this sale I have spent hours dealing with you and this, the engineer has spent hours dealing with you and on this and we have waivered all costs and arranged this at cost, yet this is still not good enough for you.

I think you will find this link is more accurate:

OUCH! I was a bit taken aback at this e-mail. Upon reflection though, I should have known better.

Lesson For Me – Don’t ever, ever, ever offer unsolicited advice!

BTW – go and read the link Gavin provided, it has some excellent stories contained within it.

Oddly, at this point *I* start acting like I’m the vendor, trying to placate the customer. It all gets a bit strange!

You’ve clearly mis-read my previous e-mail and are obviously angry as a result.
I’d considered the matter closed, and was ready to move on with the installation – I was just sharing with you some of the observations I’d made through the process, not to complain, but to give constructive feedback.
I’m really sorry you’ve mis-read my e-mail and not taken it in the positive manner it was meant. It wasn’t my intention to upset you. You may have even taken it as a personal attack, which was not intended.
E-mail is a notoriously terrible medium for conveying intent, and it’s obvious that you’ve mis-read mine in this instance.
How would you like to proceed? Judging by the content of your last e-mail, it sounds as though you’d prefer to hand this off to the authorities, but if you’d prefer to speak to me on the telephone, I’m happy to do that – my number is <phone no>.”

Lesson For Me – Pick up the Phone, it’s good to talk!


Now, my provider clearly have a good reputation. In fact, Gavin at my provider clearly has a good reputation too – I found links on-line where there were examples of where he’s been name checked personally for giving great Customer Service.

So how did it end?

“Hi Richard,

You are the customer and you are perfectly entitled to post your opinions and grievances, I just felt we have bent over backwards for you on this and thought you would be thanking us as opposed to criticising us, as the owner of <them> I am passionate, I do defend my business and staff and sometimes, yes maybe I take feedback personally, the reason for this is my passion for customer service, and when this is questioned, especially when we have done no wrong and done all we can to help you, I do get defensive, but it is for all the right reasons, passion, and a desire for good customer service and reputation.

Once my system is up I will get the confirmation of rebooking in for you. As you say email is not the best way of communications.

However 🙂 I have to disagree about the customer always being right and this link is a perfect example:

Phew. What an adventure!

So, in hindsight, what happened?

Well I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

I’ve think I’ve learnt (or certainly, had re-iterated) a lot from this and have shared it with our team – it’s interesting that whilst I’m definitely the customer in this situation, I tried to look at the scenario from both perspectives.

The two main points I remind myself of are – I should have known better than to engage in an e-mail conversation when the phone would have been a better medium, and secondly, to give feedback thinking the other person will appreciate it, when actually, how many times have I appreciated a total stranger pointing out my flaws to me? Answer: None.

Let’s hope Jason turns up and does a grand job of installing my car kit on Wednesday! 🙂


Richard Tubb is an IT Business Consultant who works with ambitious IT companies who want to grow their businesses in a scalable and sustainable way. He is also a Microsoft UK Small Business Specialist Partner Area Lead (PAL) and the elected chair of the CompTIA UK Channel Community. You can e-mail him at or connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.


18 Responses to “Is the Customer Always Right?”

  1. 1 James July 2, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    I\’d be interested to know the name of this company? By pointing out that article it seems they are classifying you as "unreasonable" (or worse) and therefore you are not right. Or have I got the wrong end of the stick?

  2. 2 Rob July 2, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Any written non-verbal communication is delicate at best and deadly at worst. As you rightly say, the issue with emails is there is no emotion other than that perceived by the recipient. In this case, someone very passionate about customer service took what was being said as a \’personal\’ statement when in fact it was clearly about the business and the perceived level of service.

  3. 3 Rob July 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    I can see what is being said on both sides, I truly believe that there are take away\’s from both sides of this however I am shocked by some of the responses you received. While \’the customer is always right\’ is a very blanket statement. As a supplier, what should have happened is that they picked up the phone and stopped the trail of emails dead in it\’s tracks.

  4. 4 Rob July 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    That way both side would have been able to communicate effectively and coherently which would have resolved this much quicker and would have relieved a great deal of stress. As the supplier/service provider you are obliged to make these decisions as you are the \’expert\’ on dealing with customers and it is your responsibility to make sure that these things are not allowed to escalate.

  5. 5 Rob July 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    That said, this could have been the one that was allowed to get out of control and result in this situation which would be a great shame on what could otherwise be an unblemished record. Sadly, as we know a good word travels well but a bad word travels much faster.

  6. 6 Tim July 3, 2010 at 12:13 am

    I will answer this by referring you to my customer service bible: gavin should have said was: "Ah, sorry, it\’s our fault, we should have checked your audio system better. We\’ll have to charge you for the additional lead but we\’ll arrange the engineer at our expense".I bet you\’d have paid the 20 quid and been pleased as punch. By arguing with you, Gavin shot himself in the foot.

  7. 7 Richard July 3, 2010 at 6:25 am

    James – I don\’t think you\’ve got the wrong end of the stick, but it does boil down to one main point – they felt I was wrong for not giving them specific info, and I felt they were wrong for not guiding me correctly.Rob – I was surprised at their responses, and I guess this spurred some of my own responses as I (foolishly) took it upon myself to re-educate them. Bad idea! I mean that sincerely too – with hindsight, why ever offer any unsolicited advice?

  8. 8 Richard July 3, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Tim – you\’ve summed up my thoughts towards this perfectly. That was exactly the response I was hoping for, but which I didn\’t get.

  9. 9 Chris July 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Hi Rich, you\’ve already covered the issue of email communication (ref the emotional context something is written in Vs the context its received in – and the problems that causes). but my observations are:-(1) The advice give by the supplier reference the choice of a Bury BT unit over a Parrot BT unit was based on its compatibility with your handset (HTC), not as a better choice for your specific vehicle.

  10. 10 Chris July 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    (2) When asked if you had an amplified system you replied "No, I don\’t think so". Maybe the supplier should have pushed you harder on clarification for this – but maybe you should have replied and said "I don\’t know, how do I find out" instead. You have to accept responsibility that (as far as I can tell from your transcript above) you didn\’t admit to not knowing – you guessed, it was a 50/50 chance of getting it correct, but this time you got it wrong.

  11. 11 Chris July 3, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    (3) This all smacks of you been a little bit upset and more importantly – embarrassed. It was a simple mistake anyone could make, but instead of taking it on the chin and acknowledging your part in this – you want others to accept the blame so that you can feel a little less foolish.

  12. 12 Chris July 3, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    If it were the other way around, a customer arranges for your company to upgrade their business with a SATA HDD, but when you get there you find they actually need a more expensive SCSI HDD that wasnt factored into the price you had quoted them.

  13. 13 Chris July 3, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    They blame you for not knowing they told you the wrong information (even though originally it was a low end server, which had been upgraded with a SCSI HDD subsystem – so you couldn\’t know unless you physically visited the server) but they still want the upgrade but for the original price, and want you to apologise for been such a poor supplier who doesn\’t deserve there business (which is not the case at all).

  14. 14 Chris July 3, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I\’m pretty sure we\’d see a blog about how unreasonable such customers are – and no matter what you do or how much you bend over backards for them, nothing will satisfy them.

  15. 15 Richard July 4, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Chris – all good points, which I\’d agree with.The third point you\’d made – I\’d already highlighted the fact I felt upset and embarrassed. I don\’t know many people who would timidly accept an extra £80 onto a job without arguing their frustrations though.

  16. 16 Richard July 4, 2010 at 11:59 am

    In summary – I could have named the supplier in this blog post, but I haven\’t, and that\’s because I know that I could have avoided the mistake, but they arguably could have handled the resulting communication much better.The point of the blog post was to highlight how a simple mistake perhaps could have been avoided, and secondly spiralled into a situation where both parties felt bad. There are therefore lessons to be learned on both sides – if they choose to acknowledge those lessons.

  17. 17 Richard July 7, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    An update to the saga. The installer came out again today – only to find the audio cables that had been shipped to me by the supplier were incorrect, thus another wasted visit. I learned from the installer that the audio cables were labelled with the right details, but the packaging contained the wrong actual cables. Most likely a picking problem at the suppliers apparently. These things happen, but it would be nice to know where I stand and receive a \’phone call from the provider.

  18. 18 Richard July 19, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Finally closure – concerned at the lack of response, I chased the supplier after the failed 2nd attempt at installation, and received a response via e-mail. At the third time of trying, a new engineer (and a very helpful one at that!) came out and did a great job of fitting the Bluetooth unit. Hurrah! 🙂

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