In the summer following my sophomore year of high school, I started my first “real job.” Like many teenagers, I went to work for a famous fast food establishment. And, like many teenagers, I had little use for the miscellaneous pearls of wisdom and motivational platitudes frequently dispensed by those in positions of authority, including the store managers. After a few weeks on the job, I developed a special disdain for a placard the franchise owner had affixed high upon a wall in the back of the restaurant, near the dishwashing station. In glaring, oversized font, the sign read, “Rule #1: The Customer is always right. Rule #2: If the Customer is wrong, refer to Rule #1.”
Whoever came up with that sign, I would think to myself during those first few weeks, certainly never worked here. It seemed impossible to do anything quickly enough to make customers happy. They complained that the line moved too slowly. They complained that it took too long to enter orders into the register. Even the customers who took minute after minute to count out and then pay with hundreds of pocket lint-studded pennies (and there were many of them) complained when their orders weren’t ready in a matter of seconds.
In those summer months I often worked as a closer, waiting on customers or cooking food for six hours, followed by two hours spent mopping, scraping, and scrubbing. I have vivid memories of long summer days spent taking orders from chronically impatient patrons, followed by evening hours spent plunging my hands into scalding water to scrub grease-encrusted cooking implements. Whenever I’d catch a glimpse of that sign, I would grumble under my breath, “Yeah, right!” After every shift that summer, I was convinced anew that the sign was mocking me.
After one especially frustrating lunch shift that involved an exploding milkshake machine, I’d had enough and decided the sign needed to go. I retrieved a ladder from the storage room and proceeded to ascend toward the offending sign. At the very moment I reached the ladder’s apex, I heard a vaguely familiar voice call out from below, “What are you doing up there?” I looked down to discover the face of the franchise owner staring up at me. With comically perfect timing, he had arrived to perform a surprise inspection.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be spending my summer shuffling between a cash register and a fry station when so many of my peers were enjoying more leisurely pursuits. That summer, I too often let youthful disgruntlement color my perceptions when it came to customer interactions. In reality, there were usually only a handful of impolite customers each day. Most of the people I dealt with were perfectly pleasant, even if they occasionally expected their orders to be ready almost instantaneously (it was, after all, a “fast food” establishment). Instead of viewing the job as an opportunity to hone my communication and customer relationship skills, I allowed myself to view each interaction as a nuisance.
When I came down from the ladder, I mumbled something about having to straighten the sign. The franchise owner laughed knowingly and said, “You know, I don’t actually believe the customer is always right. And you don’t have to believe it either. But if your actions convince each customer that you believe it, you’ll do well in business.”
I appreciated his candor, and from that day forward I made an effort to put his words into practice. I adjusted my attitude. I tried harder to see things from the customer’s perspective. And, every once in a while, when customers did get on my nerves, I used those moments as opportunities to work on skills that might come in handy later in life. I stayed at the job for two more summers and even received a small college scholarship from the franchise owner at the conclusion of my senior year.
Providing excellent customer service is obviously essential within the association management industry. Succeeding in this line of work requires being responsive to and respectful of our clients’ – and their members’ – questions, requests, suggestions, and even their occasional complaints. In the association world, our customers might not always be “right” in the sense that we may not always agree on the best course of action to meet a particular goal, or the time required to do so. But when they push back, when they challenge us to do better or work faster, they are “right” in a more important way: they are right to care about the outcomes we are charged with achieving on their behalf. Maybe there was something to that sign after all.