“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises…” Mahatma Gandhi

This is a transcript of a letter sent to The Hindu Newspaper, India in 2000. It expresses the deep frustration that many customer-facing employees face daily in their work.

Dear Hilka, Whoever said the customer was always right never worked with my customers. Half the time I just feel like screaming at them to behave or go away, but I realise this is inappropriate. However, how can I get them to be more polite so that I stop dreading going into work every day?

Sincerely, Needs-a-Vacation

There is no doubt that some people can be extremely unpleasant and very difficult to serve satisfactorily. That’s life. None of us are completely even tempered, rational people all of the time.  Human interactions of whatever kind are fraught with the danger of friction, and that is driven by the human condition: the pressures, the doubts, the worries, the fears that every human being experiences in his or her existence; and those of us whose job it is to facilitate people to buy from the organisations we represent need to recognise this not only in the customer, but in ourselves too.

That is why the profession of customer service needs professional skills that transcend the inevitable potential for friction that exists between people. Customer-serving employees need SERVICE-ABILITY, and part of that involves understanding, not only that customers can be unpleasant, but what to do when such a situation occurs. Frankly, the last thing that is needed in response to an angry customer, is an equally ‘human’ reaction. That way lies difficulty. What is needed is a professional approach.

The first thing a professional recognises is that  a customer’s ‘bad’ behaviour is often a subjective thing. Naturally, behaviour is constrained by the law of the land, but, often, organisations define their own ‘rules’ of their customer’s behaviour according to their views. This is entirely inappropriate.

In a speech in South Africa in 1890 Mahatma Gandhi said this:

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider of our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to do so.”

This is a philosophy well worth absorbing and putting at the heart of all customer interactions. If we think of the idea of extending warm, welcoming hospitality to the customer with courtesy and attentiveness, rather than offering cool technical efficiency on a transactional basis, expecting the customer to be polite to us rather than the other way round, then we will get closer to the truth of what customer-satisfying service really is.

Intemperate customer behaviour is is not to be seen as a fault in the customer, it should be viewed as a sign that something is wrong with us and our product/service offering. It almost always has a reason behind it. Generally speaking, that reason is related to the fact that a customer perceives that his or her needs are not being met. The emphasis is on perception, not reality, because it is a fact that a person’s perceptions are reality to them, and so there is no point in trying to show them anything different. One has to accept the customer on his or her terms, not ours. Getting customers to be more polite is not the right idea. Asking what we or our organisation is bringing to the relationship that is not meeting the customer’s needs is.

The second thing to realise is that anger is an emotion that says a person’s needs are not being met, and that satisfying those needs is the way to assuage anger. Courtesy and attentiveness, being a sounding board for their frustrations, listening without interruption until their frustration has been expressed may be all that is needed.

And the third thing is that people, by and large, do not get angry for no reason. Nobody likes being angry. It upsets our day. It upsets people around us, and it is a generally unpleasant state to be in. No rational person goes there without having what is for them a very good reason for doing so. Psychologists know this only too well and, to a large extent, so too should customer-facing employees. It is this knowledge and understanding that is part of the profession, and it needs to be taken on board. It is a serious mistake to think that customers are just nasty, awkward, unreasonably demanding etc. and that nothing can be done to change them. Indeed listening to the message behind customer frustrations reveals the most valuable information as to where our offering is not resonating: where we are going wrong.

Of course, some customers may be just cantankerous and rude by nature. That is their problem, it should not be ours. Fighting the customer over their attitude is a hill we don’t need to die on in order to win the campaign. The oldest adage in the book is that you can never win an argument with a customer. If you do, you are likely to lose the customer. As customer-service professionals, we can rise above that, exercising skill and knowledge to negate it. Rather than a response based on defence or hostility, an approach that, like a judo wrestler, roles with the punch will defuse the rudest behaviour and get the desired result, which is securing the customer’s business.

That is the entire point of SERVICE-ABILITY. That four axis framework in which organisations can ensure that their customer-facing staff are selected, trained, developed and equipped through Modernised Management to have professionalism through pride in the job, as well as having Effective Leadership that ensures the ability to act on initiative through trust and empowerment them to do so, being able to focus on their job through operating in an Appropriate Organisation, and where they have Clarity of Purpose that encourages them to be engaged with the customer as well as the aims of the organisation through purposefulness and understanding its overall aims.

19 Responses to “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises…” Mahatma Gandhi

  1. Crumplepunch June 29, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    "In a speech in South Africa in 1890 Mahatma Gandhi said this:"

    Did he indeed? Well, to start with, Gandhi did not even move to South Africa until 1893.

    In 1890 he was studying law in London and not in the business of inspiring local businessmen, and certainly not being quoted doing it.

    In actual fact, Gandhi did not say this at ll. This quote is actually by Leon Leonwood Bean, in reference to his own company, in which context it makes vastly more sense.

    • Mur May 12, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

      Don't know if he said it in as many words. There is a letter from him to the Europeans (Natal Colony), 19 December 1894, where he writes: "If you are a merchant or lawyer, you have then too, a duty to discharge towards your customers and clients from whom you derive a considerable pecuniary advantage…"
      The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume I – 1894

  2. herbkr September 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    Thanks for this comment Crumplepunch. Do you have a reference for Mr Bean’s comment? It would be greatly appreciated.

  3. raju November 26, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    Gandhi said about the customer hears to be pretty good Handsoff.

    • Avril July 16, 2015 at 11:06 am #

      See Quote Investigator – Kenneth B Elliot said similar words in an interview in 1941 – QI concludes "the earliest evidence currently points to Kenneth B. Elliott as the crafter of these principles. But this suggestion is tentative because a cluster of different attributions is present in the 1940s. The ascription to Leon Leonwood Bean in 1955 is rather late, and based on current evidence it is unlikely that he formulated the principles."

  4. Chetan September 30, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    In 1955 “The Great Merchants: The Stories of Twenty Famous Retail Operations and the People Who Made Them Great” was published, and it included a section about L. L. Bean Inc. The book contained a version of the principles and noted that Bean had placed them in his catalog. 1890 and 1955 is a long journey…

  5. Virat February 28, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    Very correctly said by Gandhiji. Customer service is a very difficult job and it should be served with the aim of service ability.

  6. Leod May 20, 2015 at 7:24 am #

    Good post.

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