In Business

Is the customer always right?

People may not know what they want until they see it but the outcome is usually a compromise

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 2:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 2014, 12:59am

The customer is always right: this is the mantra repeated by every bright spark who thinks that flattery will get you everywhere.

They may be right but, in the famous words of Evelyn Waugh's fictional tame editor, only "up to a point".

One reason is that customers don't tend to know what they want until they see it. If you ask them what they want to buy, they will generally talk about something that is already available.

This lack of imagination led carmaking pioneer Henry Ford to say: "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse."

Customers are pretty conservative and have reasonably predictable tastes

Ford's frustration is understandable because if companies relied on customers to provide ideas, there would be very little innovation.

Think about it, what do you want right now?

I used to spend much of my day pounding out words on a manual typewriter; back then, an electric typewriter seemed like a good idea.

I certainly had no idea that I was looking for something infinitely better: a writing machine linked to a powerful engine providing help with research, offering some background music and the ability to correct both my spelling and grammar - albeit in eccentric ways.

Nowadays, I spend quite a lot of time working on menus for restaurants and cafes. Some customers tell us they want new dishes, others insist we change nothing on the menu, while some say that they want more healthy food, less meat and so on.

However, when you analyse what actually gets sold, you usually discover that what sells best is what sold best before, and that, by and large, customers are pretty conservative and have reasonably predictable tastes.

In my line of business, I am particularly struck by comparing customer demands for more healthy dishes and our sales records, which show a seemingly unquenchable desire for deep-fried food in large quantities, with big helpings of rice and other carbohydrates.

In part, this is because people feel they ought to be demanding healthy products while in reality taking the view that virtue can always be postponed for another day.

So, should we give our customers what they say they want or what they really want, or do we try to persuade them to eat what they have demonstrated they do not want? Go figure!

Usually the outcome is a compromise, so we keep trying to come up with what customers might want if we could make it sufficiently attractive.

This often means something new, even though people tend to be conservative in their tastes. In fact, innovation in the Hong Kong food industry is every bit as profound as in industries that pride themselves on inventing new products.

This means challenging articles of faith, such as that Chinese people would never eat sandwiches as a main meal, that cheese was a no-no and that southern Chinese avoided lamb like the plague.

Yet, canny Hong Kong restaurateurs have successfully persuaded their customers that they might just like all of the above, plus a lot more. Anticipating changing tastes and working hard on making the new choices attractive is the name of the game.

And this is the point, because what customers want is something better - and that could be a better price, better quality or better design, and so on. They might not know exactly what they want beforehand, but they'll know it when they see it.

Meanwhile, coming back to the customer always being right, it is usually taken as a reflection of the negative, not the positive. For example, if a diner sends a dish back in a restaurant, it is generally wise to replace it without a fuss.

Sometimes this means that customers will take liberties, but my experience is that most people don't. They are reasonable and can be reasoned with.

If, as I have experienced, a customer returns a curried food dish on the grounds that he or she doesn't like spicy food, it is better to offer something else rather than proclaim that this person is an idiot, not least because insulted customers are lost customers.

Meanwhile, who is arrogant enough to believe that customers have nothing to teach their suppliers? The answer is no one hoping to build a business.

Government service providers are clearly exempt from this advice because they don't even think of the people using their services as being customers, but that's another story.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster