Do it your way: “The customer is always right …” is a cop-out

I’ve learned a lot over the years about how salespeople are wired. Not surprisingly, few traits are more common than the desire to be responsive and accommodating; “the customer is always right” stuff.

For most sales professionals, this trait is their stock in trade. But I firmly believe that, in a most insidious and subtle way, it’s sabotaging their results. I’ll illustrate with an example.

Mark’s company received a request for proposal (RFP) for a rather large project. The type of work was right in his company’s sweet spot, so he decided to look further into the opportunity to see how winnable it was.

In this particular case the buying process was rather structured. So, Mark’s first step was attending a meeting where the customer walked the competing vendors through the RFP and informed them of the “rules of the game.”

One of those rules was that anyone who deviated from the plans and specifications associated with the RFP would be summarily disqualified from bidding.

Fast-forward about four months: Mark deviated from the plans – a lot – and, instead of being disqualified, won the job!


Why do customers “demand” absolute compliance with their specifications? In about 20 percent of the cases it’s for quite legitimate reasons, such as regulatory compliance issues that they themselves have to live with. In these situations, they’re pretty much stuck, and so are you.

But in the majority of cases, it’s done so that the customer can put all of the vendors on a level playing field. You know: apples-to-apples! These customers believe their lives will be easier if they make all of the vendors follow the very same rules so that they (the customer) can compare all of the offerings on a spreadsheet.

That’s their choice. It is, after all, their money. But how you respond to this demand is your choice. And this is where salespeople’s natural wiring gets in the way. It’s just too hard for most of them to invoke their own company’s best interest in so many cases.

To accommodate or not, that is the question

The safe – and accommodating – response is to fall in line and “bid per the specs,” like the customer said. Maybe you make a phone call to see if the customer is interested in alternates, you get a short “no thanks; just stick to the specs,” and you walk away thinking that that settles that!

But Mark – and countless of Mark’s colleagues in his company – have chosen not to fall in line over and over again and have been hugely successful doing it.

Variables to consider

I believe that the decision to deviate from what the customer “demands” you do is among the hardest decisions a salesperson can make because doing so goes so strongly against their natural predispositions…their DNA!

I also believe that executing the sales campaign – once that tough decision is made – is among the most challenging of all strategies to execute. But if you’re up to the task here are some things to consider.

  • What do you say to whom and when do you say it? Say too much too soon or to the wrong person and you get shut down on the spot. Or more likely, you’re told to bid per plans and submit an alternate. The timing of all of your communication is critically important.
  • To what extent do you believe you can get assurance that the customer won’t shop your ideas? The real question here is: are you prepared to tell the customer that you will not participate if they won’t give you the assurance? (Mark did!)
  • What can you do to get some kind of live meeting to go over your proposal? This is critical. It’s almost impossible to succeed without a live meeting. You have to do more than just request it. In Mark’s case, he said he would REQUIRE one…and got it. Getting the right people at the meeting is just as important. The people actually paying for the project are, of course, the key ones.
  • Be prepared with your response when the customer says they’d also like you to bid per the plans so they can have a “fair comparison” to the other vendors. Usually – not always – agreeing to do this will get you killed. Frame your response in terms of your own resources, not your desire to do what’s right for the customer.

So the next time you’re told to behave like a good little vendor, fall in line, and do as you’re told, ask yourself if doing so is in the best interest of your company. If it’s not, then find a way to force the rules to your advantage…if you’re up to it!

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Waukesha-based Stapleton Resources LLC ( He is also the author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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