The customer is always right.

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment.

After all, the most beloved businesses are those that love their customers back.

What we often forget, however, is that we as customers also shoulder some responsibility in the service that we receive. Customers themselves play a very important role in the customer service process, but this role often goes overlooked.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this sentiment since I came across this tweet from WooThemes founder Adii Pienaar:

The comment left by Daniel is just as revealing:

And it’s true, isn’t it? In many ways, this is why many people don’t see customer service as a 2-way street—when we don the title of The Customer, the feeling is that we shoulder no responsibility in the outcome of our experience with a company.

But is this what the interactive process of service is all about?

The Give and Take of Great Service

"It is our job to ensure you have the best experience possible. It is hard to do that when you don’t communicate with us.”

That’s a quote from Reddit’s Tales From Your Server, an online forum dedicated to those working as waiters and waitresses.

It describes how we as the consumer often don’t hold up our end of the bargain—that we must be willing to communicate with the staff or the business if some part of the consumer experience has disappointed us.

It seems that review sites like Yelp are a common source of contempt for many local small business owners for this very reason.

Review sites offer, for the first time ever, a way to leave anonymous feedback based off of a single experience (and on a whim). The sentiment from many business owners is that this encourages some customers skip the give-and-take should some part of their experience be unsatisfactory.

Instead of first notifying someone from the staff who may be able to make it right, they scurry home to write a scathing “review.”

Consider an example like this one from Reddit:

"Service was great. All the food was great. The cheesecake was square… it made me uncomfortable because it was not at all what I expected. It tasted great. But it was square. 2 stars.”

(And don’t get me started about the rectangular napkins…)

Obviously, this is one of the more ridiculous examples out there that I shared for a laugh, but believe me, it’s far from the only one of its kind. The tragedy here is that any restaurant worth its salt would have no problem rectifying the situation… even if it meant cutting the cheesecake however the customer wanted it.

Some folks take reviews like these in stride:

Come Try The Worst Meatball Sandwich That One Guy on Yelp Ever Had in His Life

…but you should understand that comments like these, where it’s apparent that the customer did little to communicate their problem, are a very real concern for business owners.

The sort of relationship between customer and business where zero communication happens about the quality of the service is not only bad for the business, it’s bad for future customers.

They won’t be hearing an honest take on the service quality, and that is perhaps the most concerning outcome of when this process is handled incorrectly.

But wait, why should the customer have any responsibility for any of this? Isn’t it the business’s job to make sure everything is perfect for paying customers?

It’s Not About Silent Consumerism

I’d like to make it clear that I’m not advocating that you become a doormat who is willing to accept bad service.

You are spending your money with these businesses, and they need to earn it.

I’m simply highlighting that we as a consumers are not passive observers without any control over our customer experience. Given the recent popularity of a post entitled Maybe You Get Bad Service Because You’re a Bad Customer, it seems this is a feeling shared by a large number of people—that sometimes the poor service you receive is a result of your own actions (or inaction).

Customer service is all about the interaction between the customer and those servicing them, and as a person—even with the vaunted title of The Customer—this interaction is your responsibility too.

Telling a business what they did wrong in a calm, collected manner (like an adult) is a win-win situation that can often easily turn a mishap around. Many companies are more than willing to make sure their customers walk out the door happy, going as far as to giving refunds, upgrades, speedy fixes, or the simple offering of a genuine apology.

In Reddit’s Small Business section, I thought this point was made abundantly clear by an owner of a local business who just couldn’t understand a recent negative review:

“I just wish people would know that this is my livelihood—your experience matters so much to me that I will do whatever I need to in order to make you happy, but that isn’t possible if you leave without saying a word.”

As critics, we all tend to suffer a little from the fundamental attribution error—the tendency to blame others on character for what we might normally blame on circumstance, e.g.:

  • Jack fell down the hill because he was careless.
  • I fell down the hill because it rained and the grass was slippery.

We have to recognize that even the best businesses are not infallible, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.

Great customer service isn’t about always being right. It’s about always being willing to make it right.

It’s very frustrating to be the customer on the receiving end of a slip-up, but without giving businesses at least that one opportunity to prove their worth and make things right, what sort of message are we sending?

Most of us do not hold ourselves to the same standard. Imagine if someone were to stop by your office when you were having a rough day, and then silently leave a 2-star review of your performance for the hour that they observed you (without telling you). Would you deem that as fair?

You needn’t pity small business owners though—it’s a tough deal, for sure—but they chose to go into business, and they should be willing to accept the responsibilities.

One of those responsibilities is realizing that first impressions matter, and that they must deliver on their far bigger role in the customer-to-business interaction, which is providing the best service possible, as often as possible. Even genuine apologies and hasty “fixes” don’t make up for a regularly shoddy experience.

But we do need to remember when we are playing the role of customer, we have some responsibility too, both in telling businesses where our experience is lacking and in voting with our dollars to make sure great service thrives.

In a recent Q&A about companies people would never use again (surprise, Comcast was mentioned the most), this comment stood out:

"The common denominator [here] seems to be companies that don’t individually respond to your concerns. This actually highlights how one should behave: do reward companies that provide individual attention to their customers. Do consider their service a financial benefit.”

Your candid, constructive feedback directly to those providing you with service gives worthy businesses a chance to stay on top of what they are doing right, and come to terms with what they are getting wrong.

As the comment above mentions, it also allows you to weed out those businesses who truly do not care about their customers—if you handle your responsibilities as a customer and give them a genuine chance to make you happy, they need to seize the opportunity to do so.

Otherwise, they become deserving of whatever verbal smackdown you decide to later leave on their review page!

Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.