You’ve probably seen this sign hanging up in a shop or office:
Rule 1: The customer is always right.
Rule 2: If the customer is wrong, see Rule 1.
This is not always right.
I’ve had a lot of jobs
I’ve been out of school and in the working world for thirteen years. That’s not a very long time, but I think it’s long enough to have come to some conclusions. I’ve been in the web design consulting industry for six of those years, and observed at least five distinct project management styles. I haven’t worked on a single large project during which the customer was always right. I wouldn’t expect them to be. They don’t design websites for a living, they’re just trying to run their business as best they can. They came to a professional for help because they acknowledge that they’re not experts at everything, but sometimes they forget.
A real world example
I imagine this is true for any kind of consulting: web design, accounting, interior decorating, etc. Unfortunately, it can lead to significant tension. Let’s say you’re with a group of architects, builders and designers, who are working to open a new office building for Awesome Ice Cream, Inc. It’s a big project with a host of details to be worked out. Your group is especially excited, because they’ll be able to put it in their portfolio of work. It’s a household name, and really, who doesn’t like ice cream?
Somewhere in the planning stages, one of the Awesome Ice Cream stakeholders thinks it would be neat if all of the office doors opened out, toward the hallways, instead of in toward the office. You know, because you’ve been paying attention to this sort of thing, that office doors always open in toward the office (in America, anyway). The doors that open outward tend to be closets and bathrooms. The customer wants to have “Open Door Day” on the 15th of every month for all the officers of the company to make time to hear any complaints, and wants to make it extra obvious that the doors are open.
This is a noble sentiment, but it is going to be wrong on all the other days of the month, or 96.6% of the time. People who work there would probably adapt to the weird doors at work, but visiting businesspeople would always be totally thrown off. It’d be like going to a hotel where the doors opened out onto the hallway. You’d think there was something wrong with the hotel.
Defend your experience
The thing to do now is to educate the customer, without being insulting, of course. Explain that an outward-opening door has to be either completely closed or completely open if it’s not going to impede traffic in the hallway, and when it’s completely open you lose the ability to display artwork on the wall, or have an obvious location for the fire alarm. It would also provide one fewer place for the officer to hang his/her coat if the door was swung all the way out into the hall.
At this point one of two things will happen: they’ll either see your reasoning and agree, or stomp their feet and eventually get their way. When the latter happens, I’m afraid I have no subsequent advice, but I’m hoping our readers might add some in the comments. Because in my experience, when consultants treat customers as if they’re always right, and customer makes a wrong decision, that means the general public will see the mistake, it’ll cost extra to fix it later, and nobody will want to put that project in their portfolio.
On the flip side, if you find yourself hiring a consultant, and they suggest something which seems wrong to you, ask them to back up their decision. If they can, please consider that you might be wrong, and remember that you hired experts for a good reason.
Does your industry or company behave as if the customer is always right? What do you do when they’re wrong?
Published or updated July 26, 2010.