THE BLOG
10/16/2014 04:25 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

When the Customer Is Wrong

The customer is NOT always right. Sometimes he is wrong. Sometimes he is even a jerk.

This past week I was returning home from Las Vegas, where I had delivered a keynote speech. I was on a Southwest flight. On walks this guy (late) with two big bags. It was obvious he was (still) inebriated (it was before noon). He started making quite a ruckus when he couldn't find any overhead space for his gargantuan bags. The cheerful flight attendant politely offered to take his bags and have them checked.

He refused. He insisted on forcing his bags into the overhead bins, taking other people's bags out in the process. When the flight attendant tried to assist him he became more belligerent. He even cursed at her. Upon hearing this, the pilot promptly came out of the cockpit and expediently removed him from the plane. The loud-mouthed guy yelled, "This is the customer service airline? I am a customer! I am right! It's your job to service me!" The pilot replied, "That is what we are doing, sir. We are servicing the rest of our customers by removing you." And with that, the rest of the passengers let out a big cheer.

This is an extreme example, but I think as a business culture we have gone too far in "the customer is right" attitude. Yes, the customer is important and it is good business to deliver a great experience, but NOT at the sacrifice of you, your people, or your ability to serve other more appreciative customers.

To this point, there is another great Southwest story. There was this lady who flew Southwest every week. She was constantly badgering the employees and writing letters complaining about the service. Finally, she sent a letter threatening to fly another airline. Southwest's CEO Herb Kelleher sent her a short reply: "Dear Mrs. Crabapple: We'll miss you. Love, Herb." Good riddance.

The old philosophy that the customer is #1 is wrong. You and your internal team are #1. That is what Herb and the pilot proved.

This is what I respect about the business philosophy of Richard Branson. While most corporations order their priority like this:

1. Shareholders
2. Customers
3. Employees

Branson orders his this way:

1. Employees
2. Customers
3. Shareholders

Tony Hsieh of Zappos has a billion dollars of proof (what he sold his company for) that if you make the happiness of your team your first priority, then they will make your customers happy, which in turn will make your shareholders happy.

I believe you get the quality of life that you tolerate. If you don't set boundaries, filter, govern, and restrict how the world works with you, you will be at the whimsy of everyone else's (mostly irrational) demands.

It is okay -- no, it is necessary -- to refuse your service, your time, your attention, your acceptance to people who don't help you serve your highest good.

Sometimes you have to...

Fire a client.
Disassociate with a friend or family member.
Say "no" to your boss.
Not respond to an email.
Turn down an invitation.
Refuse business.
Unplug and be unavailable.
Forget P.C. and voice a strong opinion.

It's funny how the world will reorient around your rules of engagement rather than you conforming to the world around you. When you say "no" and declare your standards, people will even respect you more and deem you more valuable and substantive (because you will be).

Nobody respects the spineless wimp. Everyone respects a person of uncompromising principles and strength.