Everyone has heard the slogan, “The customer is always right.” And everyone who runs a business knows that it’s not true.

Customers often are wrong. They complain about silly things - about things that are their own fault, about the cause of a problem and ways to fix it and, especially, about what it will cost to fix it to their satisfaction.

I’m not saying they’re always wrong. If you’re smart and listen carefully to their complaints, you’ll probably discover that they’re right at least 50 percent of the time, if not more. But the subject at hand is how to handle situations when they are most assuredly wrong.

Sometimes customers are more than wrong. Sometimes they may be downright ornery. One of the hardest things to come to grips with in human nature is the difficulty people have in admitting mistakes. The more you point out that it’s their fault, the more they’ll deny it, and the more they’ll hate you for being right.

So the first thing to realize is that no matter how much in the wrong they may be, it’s impossible to win an argument with customers. Winning means they lose, and nobody likes to lose. So your prize for winning is to kiss off some customers forever. Even worse, those customers will badmouth you to everyone who will listen. Studies have shown that a customer disgruntled with a business will tell on average 15 other people about the bad experience. Odds are great that those 15 people won’t bother to listen to your side of the story if they are in need of your services. They’ll just steer clear of you, and give their business to a competitor. So it pays not to “win” arguments with customers, but to prevent them from happening or to make the customer feel like the winner.

Keep trying

This means that even though the customer isn’t always right, you can’t afford to do away with “the customer is always right” as a basic business philosophy. The idea behind that slogan is that the customer may not always be right, but you’d better conduct your business as if he or she is.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Even when the customer isn’t right, it’s still our fault, because we didn’t provide him or her with all the information needed to understand the situation.

This falls into that realm of preventing arguments in the first place.

Sometimes customer complaints stem from unrealistic expectations, often fostered by the business itself. For instance, tire manufacturers are noted for fielding many complaints about their products. That’s because tire makers tend to run dramatic ads touting their brand’s durability. Along the way, they fail to mention that even the sturdiest brands have trouble overcoming tire terminators, such as potholes and nails.

Similarly, in order to land a job, contractors may exaggerate their ability to perform, and this can come back to haunt them. Remember: If you tell someone you can do a job in seven days and it takes you 10, you’re a bum in his or her eyes. But if you tell them the job will take two weeks and you finish in 10 days, you’re a hero. Same performance, different perceptions.

No matter how hard you try to avoid them, misunderstandings inevitably will arise. When it reaches this stage, the key is to make the customer feel like a winner.

Jim Olsztynski - pronounced Ol-stin-skee - is editor of Supply House Times, a sister publication of Snips. He can be reached at (630) 694-4006, or e-mail wrdwzrd@aol.com.