The “No Whining” Rule

no whining

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of businesses that gripe and complain about whiny-ass customers who make unreasonable demands.  If not for us customers, you wouldn’t exist.  When no one is willing to purchase your products any longer, you and all your profits will vanish without a wisp of smoke.

And I, for one, will shed no tears.

If you want a glimpse of what I mean, take a look at Stacy Hall’s columns about customer service on  First she claims that customers should be nicer to businesses, then she justifies telling us “no” as long as businesses do so politely.

“Co-Dependency” or The Balance of Power

Hall describes the relationship between many businesses and their customers as “co-dependent” on the grounds that “one person is continually serving the needs of the other without reciprocation.”

Checking further into the definition of “codependency,” I found one therapist who describes this phenomenon as “making the relationship more important to you than you are to yourself . . . trying to make the relationship work with someone else who’s not.”

Hall’s implication is that customer service representatives (CSRs) are often called upon to exercise self-sacrifice, i.e., to satisfy the customer regardless of the unreasonableness of her demands and regardless of the cost to the company.

This, essentially, is a description of the relationship summed up in the ancient adage that “the customer is always right.”

Hall argues that this line of thinking results in an imbalance that unfairly tips the relationship entirely in favor of the customer, giving her or him all the power and the business none.  So, if I understand what she is saying correctly, the customer is not entitled to act like a self-absorbed three year old who throws a tantrum to express his frustration over not being able to get exactly what he wants.  In other words, businesses exist to make a profit and ought not allow themselves to be bullied by (ooo!) aggressive customers who want what they want when they want it and who don’t care how their attitudes affects the companies with which they are doing business.

I’ve often heard talk about a sense of entitlement among customers.

Well, isn’t this a switch?  And what about the sense of entitlement among businesses?

Most of us shop in stores that are very far removed from the souk or the Arab bazaar.  Customers do not have the opportunity to haggle over prices, nor do they have any say about the relative quality of the merchandise nor the business’ return and refund policies.  As you can see, all the power is in the hands of the business.  Like the prisoner whose only power is to go on a hunger strike, the customer’s only power is to walk out the door and shop elsewhere.  And depending on the community in which one resides, there may or may not be a viable “elsewhere” (online shopping is starting to change this).

So with all the power in the power in the hands of the business, I think it takes some pretty big cojones to aver that we, as customers, are abusing our power.

Businesses need to implement a no whining rule.  I submit to you that those businesses that wish to be known as providing world-class customer service must find a way to satisfy the customer, even when he or she is being unreasonable.  And here is where I disagree with Hall.

Whether the customer is “right” or not is a perception on the part of the business.  And guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  To obtain repeat customers and spread a positive company reputation to draw in new customers, the CSR must find a way to satisfy the customer.  And yes, I mean even when the customer is being “unreasonable.”

This means that the CSR must be thoroughly trained in all the tools and options available to potentially turn the customer’s frown upside down.  It’s bad enough that the customer is dissatisfied in the first place; failure to rectify the situation will lose the customer for good.

Hall seems to believe that there are times when it makes sense to lose the customer, that the deal must be beneficial to both parties.  That’s what a contract is all about, isn’t it?  Mutual benefit?  Hall is correct in the sense that there is no contract when there is no agreement between the parties.  Just be aware that walking away from the contract enough times will cause your business to evaporate.  Satisfied customers often keep their opinions to themselves, but dissatisfied customers tell everyone they know about how awful the company is.

So. . .  Do businesses have the right to say “no,” to stick to their guns, to adhere to company policies to a T, to allow CSRs to spout meaningless verbiage from a script?  Certainly they do.  And then they can spend their time chasing rainbows and other newfangled theories about why business is falling off.

It’s not a mystery.  Quit whining and start providing the type of service your customers deserve.

Perhaps Hall is correct in here position that customers tend to be demanding.  That, however, is the price of the business being the party that establishes all the rules.  If it behooves businesses not to permit customers to walk all over them, I submit to you that customers must take the same approach to businesses.

Ultimately, a business that “stands up for itself” rather than “giving in to unreasonable customer demands” has far more to lose than does the customer.

I like what Hall says about customers receiving better customer service when they treat CSRs with respect.  As a manager, it is my wish that this would always happen.  But the fact remains that customers do have bad days influenced by factors in their lives that have nothing to do with the transaction at hand.  The CSR does not have such a privilege.  That is what is known as a “cost of doing business.”

Finding a Route to “Yes”

In her article “Saying NO and Staying Happy,” Hall recounts how she spent a large part of her life allowing herself to be trampled upon by others because she was simply too nice to say “no.”  She tells us that she often acceded to requests unwisely.  Soon after, she would realize that agreeing was not in her best interest and would wish that she had been sufficiently assertive to turn down the request.

Hall seems so proud that she managed to come up with a polite way of saying “no”:  “Thank you but that doesn’t work for me.”

While I applaud Hall’s efforts to stop being a doormat, it seems to go over her head that, however you say it, no is no.

Hall wished to escape a pattern of “putting my own needs aside in order to take care of the needs, wants, or desires of someone else.”  While this may be a wise course of action when one feels imposed upon by a neighbor, coworker or Great-Aunt Bedelia, I submit that it has far less validity in the realm of providing excellent customer service.

Although Hall doesn’t specifically mention CSRs in her article, a disappointed customer is unlikely to be a repeat customer no matter how politely you tell him or her “no.”

Often, what the customer is requesting may be beyond the authority of the CSR to provide.  In such case, the only hope of satisfying and retaining the customer (short of a supervisor contravening company policy to mollify an upset customer — a course of action that can often be justified, by the way) is for the CSR to get inside the customer’s head.  The CSR needs to ask open-ended questions to probe the origin and nature of the problem at a depth beyond the partial information that the customer has provided.  It may very well be possible to salvage the contact (and the customer relationship) by pinpointing the true place that things went awry.  Frequently, the customer will be satisfied with quite a bit less than he or she initially requested.  Customers stewing in their own juices while waiting on hold in a phone queue or in a store line may well exaggerate their sense of being wronged and thus be moved to ask for the world on a platter.  You might be surprised to learn that, more than anything else, customers want to be listened to, to be understood and to experience a bit of human empathy.  And if you “throw them a bone,” so much the better.

Remember, no matter how polite your CSRs are, “no” is still “no.”  Much better is finding a route to “yes.”


5 thoughts on “The “No Whining” Rule

  1. For many years my husband had a side business of selling books through ebay. Over those years, as you can imagine, he encountered quite a few “unreasonable customers.” His philosophy was to never engage them in a hostile way, that more often than not, most people just want to blow off steam. So no matter how nasty the person was he was always exceedingly gracious to them, even if they left him unfair negative feedback.

    Interestingly, over thousands of transactions, only a handful of customers tried to outright swindle him. Definitely less than 1%. I don’t know if it’s the same in the real world marketplace but this small fraction of thieves always surprised me and gave my faith in humanity a little bump.

  2. As a waitress, I am going to reserve my right to bitch and whine about horrible customers, because there are ways to eat out at restaurants and some people just do not know them.

    • I hear you, Janie. Have you ever looked at That site features food service workers airing their grievances. It has opened my eyes.

      I do believe that a certain amount of politeness is simple human decency. I appreciate the hard work that servers do and I try to treat them as I would want to be treated. However, I understand that they and I are both human and neither of us are perfect. But I do believe that kindness is important.

      I genuinely wish that servers were treated properly by customers. There is no excuse for rudeness and stinginess. I don’t know what is wrong with some people. That said, dealing with such people is unfortunately a hazard of working in the food service business. If a customer is rude, the owner has a right to kick out the customer and tell him never to come back. Do this enough times, however, and the restaurant will go out of business. it’s a sad and unfortunate situation.

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