The Customer is Always Right (But Only About One Thing)

(Reading time: approx. 4 minutes)


You know the saying “The customer is always right”? Well, it is only partially true. Companies have adopted this mantra over the years and spent considerable time and effort to ensure that their customers are satisfied.  More importantly, they develop and launch new products and services to address what they perceive to be the needs of the market. The thing is that customers are not right about everything.  In fact, they are really only right about one thing: how they feel.


Having spent the last decade implementing enterprise software, consulting to massive organizations and now working at Hubba, it is clear to me that the customer is “not right” more often than they are right. They misunderstand what their business problems are, they misrepresent their requirements, they misconstrue what it is they actually want, they are miscalibrated on what they think the solution is for their problem.  The thing is, in all my years doing this, I am yet to find a client who was wrong about how their problems make them feel.  It is for this reason, that to properly service a customer, you need to start with feelings.


Being the only real thing that a customer is sure about, these feeling need to be the anchor on which you build out your plan to address the problem.  The best companies in the world all take a similar approach to developing and enhancing their products and services.


Step 1: Drill down to understand the problem


Customers are annoyed. Customers are frustrated.  Customers are pissed off.  These are strong feelings. That is good.  That is the type of market you want to address.  It means there is a real problem.  Unfortunately, these emotions don’t help to indicate the cause of why these feelings are out there.


When we started Hubba, it was clear that the life of brand manager was difficult.  They are constantly playing catch up and trying to stay on top of things. When we started digging deeper into the market we would often hear things like “I feel overwhelmed”, “I am discouraged because it is impossible be good at my job in today’s world”, “It is aggravating to deal with this mess”.


Our first task was to figure out why these brand managers felt this way. I am generally not one for formal methodologies but I have always found the “5 Whys” to be a great way to drill down to the root cause.  Developed by Toyota as a quality assurance technique for manufacturing, we use it all the time for getting to the core of a problem whether it is related to understanding a client or resolving software bugs.


It goes something like this…

Brand Manager: I feel overwhelmed


Brand Manager: Because there is too much to do


Brand Manager: Because in addition to being strategic there is more and more tactical work to do.


Brand Manager: Our retail partners are constantly begging for rich marketing data for their websites, eCommerce sites and apps but I can’t get it to them.


Brand Manager: Because are data sits in a million different systems that I don’t have access to.


Brand Manager: Because there is no single source of truth for our products that within our organization that I can share with our partners.

Bingo. Now we have come to the problem behind the feeling. This is the leaping off point for the next step.


Step 2: Identify a solution


It would be impossible to identify a solution to make a brand manager feel less overwhelmed.  However, it is significantly easier to identify a solution to create a single source of truth for rich product information that can be shared with partners.


We decided to isolate the problem from all of the other noise and focus on developing a product that addressed  just this problem.  This is the scary part. Imagine your business as a super tanker crossing the ocean.  If your trajectory is off even by a small amount in the beginning, you will be completely off by the time you reach your destination.  If you are wrong about the problem, the entire chain reaction afterwards will be off.


Figuring out the fix to a problem is one thing, designing the mechanism to fix it is completely different.

Step 3: Design the solution 


Figuring out the fix to a problem is one thing.  Designing the mechanism that will fix it is something completely different.  There are two main aspects of the design that you always need to keep in mind: The builders and the users.


Having the right design is superfluous if it can’t be built.  Every architect knows this.  Your blueprints for your beautiful skyscraper can be amazing but if the structural engineers tell you that it will crumble under its own weight, it will take 15 years to build or will cost you $20 billion dollars, it does not matter how beautiful it is.


On the flip side, you can identify the perfect solution to a problem but if the design is terrible and people hate using it, it doesn’t matter how good the solution is. You still won’t be able to effectively solve the problem and ultimately make the customer or market feel any better.



Step 4: Execution


Finally, once the problem has been identified, the solution has been agreed upon, the design has been nailed, you actually need to build it/develop it and launch. The interesting thing about this process is that every single one of these steps needs to be done perfectly to be successful.  It is all or nothing. This is a tall order considering that each one of them requires wildly different skills.


  • Understanding how your customer/market feels (Emotional)
  • Understanding the problem (Analytical)
  • Developing the solution (Problem solving)
  • Designing the solution (Creative)
  • Execution (Operational)


You can look at companies like Apple and BMW to really see this process in action.  They are geniuses at every stage.  Conversely, you can look at Blackberry who understood the problem (debatable) but failed at design. If there is a misstep at any point in the process the entire thing falls apart.

Ben Zifkin

Ben Zifkin

Ben Zifkin is the Founder and CEO of Hubba. Author of 'The Rise of the Craft Brand' Retail and Brand Expert. Repeat Entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter @Ben_Zifkin
Ben Zifkin


  • I think the phrase is still particularly relevant in the B2C/Service industry. E.g. Hospitality or dealing with customer support. If I feel my hotel room hasn’t been cleaned properly or I call up my telecom carrier because their online self-service options don’t work, I expect the business to acknowledge my feedback and work towards a resolution (as opposed to challenging it or defending it).

    Having said that, I believe this post touches on common issues in the B2B/Enterprise space, and to that end I agree. Too often the originally ‘identified problem’ is merely symptomatic of a greater problem; in such cases, techniques like the 5 Why approach work well. However, I also believe that as organizations attempt to move away from silos, one should consider the potential impact of the proposed solution. Think of it as adding a layer of iteration to the problem identification and solution design process. For example – by solving a problem for HR, how will Finance be impacted? In doing so, the solution designer can also factor in additional design requirements or stakeholder interests to further increase the likelihood of project success.

    Also to that end – I think one additional step or possibly a sub-step within the execution phase is Adoption/Training. Too often even after problems are ‘solved’ there is a lack of awareness around the new improvement and old habits continue to kick in. E.g. continuing to use spreadsheets, despite investing in a new CRM solution. 😉

    To your point, brands like Apple get this – so not only do they solve problems by designing cool new products, but they also help increase the likelihood of adoption by educating their customers and creating awareness via things like online tutorials, videos, and the Genius bar. As for Blackberry…other than hearing about BB10 as a product during their launch, have you heard anything about how and why to use it? …Sigh.

    • Ben Zifkin

      Thanks for the feedback Rajen.

      I agree with your points, especially the cross-company solutions and training.

      I played with the Blackberry device. Being an early supporter of RIM, I was happy at how much I liked it. Unfortunately, I didn’t like it enough to switch from my iPhone and Google Nexus. Too bad.

      People like me are going to be the big problem for them. I feel that not only did they mix up the design step but now, with more focus on the consumer as opposed to enterprise, they may have lost focus on the Problem step too.

  • Chrystal Green

    Your article easily breaks down the steps needed in order to get to the deeper issue of wht the customer is unhappy. Since all business deals with individuals these methids are transferable. Great article.

    • Ben Zifkin

      Thanks Chrystal. It has been very useful for us. Hopefully it can help others too.