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Beware of the need to always be right

By Martin Grunstein
29 March 2017 | 1 minute read

The need to be right is a basic psychological human desire, but it’s simultaneously the catalyst for destruction of relationships, both personal and business.

You catch your toddler drawing with crayons on the wall. He has crayons in his hand and a guilty smile on his face. You say to your little angel, “Who did that?” and what does your child reply? “Not me, mummy!”

I have given this scenario to audiences at many conferences, and the almost universal response is that they can relate to the above example.


Why? Because our need to be right, or more correctly, our need not to be proved wrong, is fundamental and psychologists say that the younger your child is when he/she starts to lie, the more intelligent he/she is.

How does that apply to customer service? Very directly.

Say, you are the owner of a restaurant and a customer says the food is terrible. Your first instinct as a human being is to defend yourself. You may tell the customer that the chef is world-renowned or that you have won awards for your food.

That is the wrong thing to do and is more likely to lead to you losing that customer.

Our need to prove ourselves right at the expense of the customer is the single major obstacle to becoming a business with a reputation for outstanding customer service.

The adage, ‘The customer is always right’, is definitely not true. Many times, the customer is wrong, and sometimes they are a pain in the neck. But the customer must walk away thinking they are right if you want them to come back.

If there is a complaint, the customer must be able to save face as well as have the complaint resolved if they are to be a customer again in the future.

When customers are spending their money in any situation, fundamental to the relationship is that their ego is preserved, during the experience, by everyone they come in contact with.

Sticking with the restaurant theme, my wife and I were out at a restaurant with another couple and the waiter was taking our drinks order. I ordered a Coke and the waiter said, they didn’t have Coke, they had Pepsi. I said that’s fine. I said to my friends that I remember from my old marketing days that Pepsi used to beat Coke in blind product tests and most people couldn’t tell the difference anyway.

The waiter corrected me, and said he had also studied marketing and the recent evidence was that Coke beat Pepsi and people can tell the difference. I was triggered. It’s not his job to correct my errors.

His need to be right was greater than his need to have a satisfied customer. We laughed about the incident at the table but I was embarrassed. My wife and I have never returned to the restaurant and I have told many people about the experience and the restaurant in question.

The best story I heard of a customer being humiliated by a service professional came when I was doing work in the golf club industry. One of the members complained that she was a vegan and there wasn’t sufficient variety in the club’s menu to keep her happy, and she suggested that the club change its menu to accommodate her. The staff member (who was having a bad day – but that shouldn’t be the customer’s problem) told her, “There’s plenty of grass out there. Why don’t you just have a munch on some of it while you are playing?”

Am I saying that we need to suppress a basic human need to be right to be providers of good customer service? Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying.

What do we replace our first instinct of defence and justification with when we receive a complaint or hear something we don’t agree with?


When you are kept waiting by a dentist or an accountant, or anyone in business for that matter, the first thing they should say is, “I am terribly sorry to keep you waiting. I understand your time is valuable”.


The last few weeks of my father’s life were very traumatic for me. I was at the hospital every day and I was becoming quite a pain in the neck to the staff when I couldn’t get answers to questions or talk to his doctor when I needed to. One day, his doctor took me aside and said, “I need to speak with you”. I thought he was going to reprimand me for my poor behaviour, but he did exactly the opposite.

He said, “I appreciate your frustration but we are doing everything we can for your father. I also want to tell you that you are a very good son. You are here every day and many other patients don’t have a loved one who cares for them like you do. I hope when my time comes, my son will be there for me like you are for your father.” I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and ceased to be a pain in the neck to the staff.

Sometimes, when customers act poorly, there are other issues in their lives that are causing that. A little empathy and validation that they are a good person can make them much easier to deal with.

I have taught the use of validation with great success in the childcare and aged care industry. But it applies much broader than that.

When most business people receive a complaint or hear something that makes them feel uncomfortable, their first response is to protest their innocence. The first step should be to acknowledge the concern of the customer. This applies importantly to social media.

If you receive criticism on Facebook, don’t fight with the customer online. When people complain on social media, they are angry and often will embellish the story for increased effect.

If you try to prove their accusation false or ridiculously exaggerated, you can come across as unconcerned at best and a bully at worst. People reading the communication will often relate to the customer rather than the service provider, and may decide not to do business with you purely based on the way you communicate with the complaining customer.

When you receive criticism, the first thing you should do is acknowledge the customer’s inconvenience and say how sorry you are that they feel the way they do. Don’t try to work out who’s right and wrong online. The best thing to do is to try and resolve the issue offline.

Tell them you’d like to buy them a cup of coffee and listen to them in more detail and help resolve the issue. Even if they don’t turn up for the coffee, the fact that you acknowledged them and offered goodwill to resolve the issue may stop them from taking more revenge upon you by badmouthing your business.

People reading the communication see you as a business responsive to the needs of your customers rather than someone who abuses those who complain.

If we can change our instinctive response of defensiveness and justification (the adult version of “not me, mummy”) to empathy and a desire to make the customer happy, we can massively enhance the perception of our business in the minds of customers and those who they communicate with.

I remember many years ago hearing Oprah Winfrey say on her show, when talking about relationships, “You can go through life being right or being successful and happy – but you can’t have both!”

I am happy to give up the need to be right for a little bit more success and happiness. What about you?

Beware of the need to always be right
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