When the Customer Is Wrong

I am a shameless groupie of the gourmet food truck movement here in San Francisco, particularly, Off the Grid, a circling of these meals on wheels every Friday evening. I was perusing the offerings one Friday when I overheard a woman complain that one of the trucks wouldn't alter a menu item to her taste. She argued with her friend that the policy wasn't good for business and said, "Isn't the customer always right?"

I smiled, because in my experience, the customer is not always right--that is, the customer is not always right for your business.

One of the hardest things to do when you run a start-up company is to stop trying to be all things to all people. It's tempting to go that route at the beginning, because at first you're just looking for anyone to pay you. This early dance of taking on all customers and trying to please them is often incredibly instructive and necessary. But over time, if you keep doing the dance and fail to set some boundaries, you're headed for a fall.

The siren song is strong: do this super custom thing for us and we'll pay you big bucks. Your payroll flashes before your eyes. You think, just this once, and then three months down the line you find your company mired in the La Brea tar pits.

At my company, advertisers and publishers alike were forever trying to get us to do something custom and we did the dance, at first. Then I did something truly radical. I put my foot down. When a sales person came to me with a custom request, I said no. When a publisher wanted to change a standard contract, I said no. My team fretted but I held firm.

In the beginning, it felt a bit uncomfortable, this hard stance, but eventually, like good fences make good neighbors, I found that business boundaries made for good business. Suddenly we were dealing with higher quality customers. These customers were interested in us for what we had to offer which made the sales process that much easier. Once we started to take ourselves seriously enough to draw hard lines, it was as if our customers started taking us seriously, too. And the truly interesting thing is that our business started to take off.

Which is why I had to laugh when I saw the long line queued up for the food truck the woman complained about. It seems the food truck's business was doing just fine.

For more edible stories, see www.aliciamorga.com.

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