As a flooring retailer, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the “customer is always right” mantra. You’ve heard time and again about the virtues of being “customer-focused.” And although you may have come to accept these retailing concepts as gospel, I’m here to tell you that these notions can be flat-out WRONG.

And I’m going to prove it to you, right now. (Umm. By the way, if you’re one of MY customers, and you can’t believe I just said what I did, I ask you indulge me by reading this article in its entirety — please!) Consider the following three real-life cases.

Case no. 1

Recently, I interviewed a candidate for a sales position with my company. This fellow had previously owned his own business and, during our chat, he told me a story about one of his former customers who offered to make substantial purchases from him on a regular basis. There was just one catch — the customer wanted to pay him in cash and there was to be no sales ticket generated.

I asked my interviewee how he responded to such an unusual request. Well, let’s just say that this particular cash-and-carry customer became one of his company’s biggest accounts. He justified his decision by saying something to the effect of, “Hey, it’s all about making money isn’t it? We all do whatever we can to make a sale, don’t we?”

So, the Million-Dollar Question is: “Where did he go wrong?” And is that your final answer?

To me, the obvious answer is: This guy established an unethical moral focus for his company that can be summed up as, “Do whatever the customer wants as long as it makes you money.” (Of course, this candidate didn’t get that sales job with my company.)

Was he customer-focused? Absolutely. But, was he principle-focused? Only if his single guiding principle was to make money without letting ethical principles get in the way.

Case no. 2

A couple of my salespeople took a potential customer to lunch. They were trying to figure out how we could get his business. After a few minutes of lunchtime chat, our prospective customer revealed just how we could get his business.

“Listen, this is how it works,” he said. “I tell my customers that I bill them at 10% over my cost. So, what I want you to do is give me a dummy ticket for 50 cents per foot more than I paid. All my other distributors do it — no problem.

“And if you want me to begin purchasing from you, I’ll need you to do the same thing.”

At first glance, it seems the question is: “If the customer is always right, shouldn’t my sales reps have made this sale?”

The correct answer? Of course they should have. That is, if their sole guiding focus holds that the customer is always right, then this customer’s requirements for doing business with him would not be a problem.

But how did my salespeople respond to the proposition? Their immediate reply was, “That will never fly at our company. Our boss would never agree to that.”

To their credit, they continued to inquire whether there might be some other way of doing business with him, provided his purchases would be made above board. Interestingly, we still meet with him from time to time to see if we can get his business (as a demonstration of our customer focus) without sacrificing our professional ethics (a demonstration of our principle focus).

So in this case, the real Million-Dollar Question ought to be: “Is the customer always right?” If you’re truly principle-focused, you won’t need a “lifeline” to answer that one.

We’ve all dealt with customers who ask us to do things that are neither wise nor prudent for our company. I’m sure that anybody who’s been in the tile business for more than a week has experienced a tile complaint even though there was absolutely nothing technically wrong with the product itself. How you respond to such a complaint constitutes your moment of truth. You have to decide whether to prove that the customer is wrong in his claims, or work with him to establish a solution to the problem.

Case no. 3

I once had a customer who complained about the chips on his newly installed tile floor. What he failed to recognize, however, was that the factory intentionally incorporated the chips into the tiles as a design element. So, I went to his home to inspect the installation. Sure enough, it was chipped — just as the manufacturer intended.

However, our company did everything right in selling this product. We had the chipped pieces on display. We had the chipped pieces on grouted boards in the showroom. We even affixed disclaimer labels on the back of this tile warning customers that their final selections should be made from several pieces of the current shade. As I said, we did everything right.

To top it off, the customer’s designer had told the installer to quit installing the tile because of the chips. But the installer chose to finish the installation anyway! So what was my company’s liability? Technically, none. We did nearly everything possible to inform the customer of the tile’s intended finished appearance.

However, if we decided to stick to our guns and just left the customer with a floor he didn’t like, we could be pretty confident that his designer wouldn’t do business with us again. So instead, we took a more pro-active approach to the situation. The fact is the customer had a tile installation that he didn’t like, and he needed a solution to his problem.

After careful investigation, and considerable discussion, we figured out that his real problem revolved around the grout inside the chip — not the chip itself. Seeing that the chip was glazed over, we simply had the installer remove the grout from the chip area and then grout stain the floor.

Just by doing that we solved the problem. The customer and designer thought the reworked floor looked great. Not only was the customer happy, the designer was happy and so were we.

And now, the Million-Dollar Question: “Was the customer wrong?”

Answer: That’s the wrong question to ask. In this case, we never tried to prove right or wrong. Instead, we stuck to our guiding principle of “Creating a Great Tile Experience” and found a solution to his problem. And that, in turn, created a satisfied customer for us.

In conclusion

Should you be customer-focused?If your customer focus is based on ethical guiding principles, then “customer-focus” should be your banner. If you establish these principles in writing, then your sales force and employees will know how to handle questionable situations when they arise.

Is the customer always right? Remember: even when she’s not right, she’s always the customer. Take the focus off of who is right or wrong, and make the commitment to be solution-oriented. Be educated and prepared to answer questions, and partner you’re your customers through any problems or challenges that may arise.

Finally, unless you communicate your guiding principles through your own actions, you will have employees who remain ill-equipped to handle the rigors of excellent customer service. Tap into the power of principles!