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The customer isn't always right

16 March 2011


Recently I had three curly questions at RedBalloon, involving a consumer customer, a corporate customer and a supplier customer. It really brought customer service to the forefront, and made me wonder: is exemplary customer service about having ‘Happy Customers’ at all cost? Does a business need to do everything it possibly can to keep customers ‘happy’ – or is it a case of ‘you cannot please all the people all the time’?


I’m tremendously proud of RedBalloon’s growth, and the sheer quantity of customers we now are privileged to serve. Plus I am very aware that RedBalloon has been built by many people: customers, suppliers and employees.

Organisations that continue to grow and thrive are those built on values with a shared sense of purpose. Plus a successful business cannot be dependent on any individual - and the leader cannot be a bottleneck. I very much see myself as a mentor, and coach to those around me. Most importantly I constantly use RedBalloon’s values to guide me through decisions.

So back to my three curly questions:

The consumer has spent much time and energy phoning and emailing our customer experience team about her issue. Our team consistently and professionally acknowledged her concerns, and referred to our terms and conditions and fulfilled on them. The consumer has since written to me as CEO, asking me to ‘break’ the terms and conditions.

I suspect she will not be happy with my response:

“RedBalloon prides itself as being a values driven organisation. Our first value is simply 'to do what we say we will do.' As such we consistently execute our terms and conditions. This is often difficult when we also pride ourselves on our customer reputation. However, in the long run our customers and suppliers know that they can always count on us. 

As the leader of the organisation it would be a bad example that I set if I were inconsistent in any aspect of our terms and conditions. It is simply not the leader I am. So whilst I know that I have an upset customer, I also know that on a personal level I have fulfilled on my promise. No matter how difficult that is.”

Would you have answered differently?

Now to the corporate customer - who also wishes RedBalloon to ‘bend the rules’ for his circumstances. He argues he has great influence and implies he will tell the ‘powers that be’ that he is not happy with us. Do our rules (and values) change because the potential audience, or fall out, is potentially much larger than the consumer issue? The head of RedBalloon’s corporate team drafted a response, and I quote in part:

“Considering the circumstances issue that you outline to us, it would place this particular voucher in a preferred position to others. The inconsistent application of our terms and conditions creates adverse consumer sentiment. We treat all of our customers as equals and are proud of our ongoing partnership with your organisation.”

Should a larger customer be given preferential treatment over other, smaller customers? Would you change the rules for one because they were ‘worth’ more financially?

Finally, the supplier. Without our amazing experience suppliers we would not have anything on the shelf to deliver to customers. So we have always considered our suppliers as customers.

One supplier is not happy with an aspect of how we are growing the business. His RedBalloon account manager has kept him informed the whole way, and – as all our team members do - is executing our growth strategy based on our values.

Yet the supplier has requested a meeting with me. Should an important supplier determine the execution of our strategy? What message would it send to the RedBalloon team if I ignored our values and chose not to support this account manager?

I’m curious to hear your opinion on keeping customers happy – and at what lengths you would go to. Is the customer experience based on mutual respect? Or one based on doing anything, anytime for everyone? If I say the source of Happy Customers is having a Happy Team – then how would the team be happy if I overturned every decision they made, when they made those decisions based on our values?

Business is not easy. Choosing our RedBalloon values and living a business based on these values has been both tough and easy. Easy because our values have been like ‘guiding stars’ helping us make decisions and recruit people to build the amazing workplace I’m incredibly proud of. Tough when they are the final touchstone between you, the rock and a hard place and by living them you know you won’t please everyone all of the time.

I look forward to your insights. 




  • Carol Jones

    Carol Jones 8 years ago

    Greetings Naomi. I'm answering you separately. You're a much larger business than I am, so your issues are different to mine. But I always remember an intensely disappointing experience I had as a customer of a retailer who is an institution in Australia. They solved my problem in a perfunctory manner, and in their eyes, they fulfilled their terms and conditions. As a customer who had recently spent many thousands of dollars with them over 12 months, it was obvious this didn't matter. And I have never spent another dollar with them. This is always uppermost in my mind when I'm wavering with a customer. I have first hand experience of what it's like to be treated according to the rules. And I make sure no customer of mine ever leaves me feeling like that. To me, every problem can be solved by meeting in the middle. Customers are only unreasonable when they have the rules waved in front of them. Very few want you to be out of pocket. Some - yes. But not many. But a meeting in the middle can be worth a tonne of good will and positive word of mouth that you'd never achieve any another way. Many thanks, Naomi, for inviting me to add my comment. Best~Carol

  • Carol Jones

    Carol Jones 8 years ago

    Greetings Eliza and Belinda from rural Australia. I, too, own a small business. And there are times - admittedly, very, very few and far between - when I have to bite my tongue really hard to stop it from saying something I know I'll regret later. I agree with Eliza. Especially today with social media. Every customer must leave feeling happy. The consequences of tarnishing your online reputation is too harsh a penalty to pay. Once something appears online, it stays online. Good. And bad. And there's little you can do in the way of removing unfavourable comments. You can do a rebuttal, but not everyone will see it. Or read it. I'm a pit bull terrier with a bone when it comes to guarding my online reputation. And I'll happily walk over broken glass to make sure my customers are happy. I've never regretted making sure a customer goes away with a smile on their face. Best to you both~Carol

  • Eliza Foster

    Eliza Foster 9 years ago

    Even if the customer is not right, we bend over backwards to make sure they leave feeling happy. Everyone who leaves happy tells maybe a few friends. Anyone given the opportunity to leave unhappy will tell the world!

  • Belinda Stubing

    Belinda Stubing 9 years ago

    I do agree generally, but in customer service in small business sometimes regardless of who is right or wrong the customer is always right. I think in the 20 years I have worked in this business I have actually told 3 customers that they were not right.....!!!!! but many more who were definately not right went away getting what they came for... So do we stand our ground and get possible bad feedback or let it go and have a happy customer