Large companies have many departments, divisions and even multiple entities. Although they fall under one umbrella, they often do business separately and make their own decisions.

It's common for a business to have multiple contracts with the same company; often, those contracts have no common denominator other than the company they represent.

If one division uses your products or services, it wouldn't be a surprise for another to benefit from your business. When you already have an "in," you're at an advantage, because you know the big corporation's business from working with one of its divisions.

Even if you can easily modify your product or services based on the work done with another division, how do you explain that to the right people in another area of the company? Sometimes it is possible to get a referral from current contacts; other times it is not. How do you reach other potential customers within the same company?

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This Week's Dilemma

Reaching customers' other departments

We are a B2B company selling CRM technology. After a brief customer analysis, we have noticed the customers we have sold to have other divisions that may be potential clients. How do we reach these other departments? Aside from referrals, how else can we access these other divisions?

—Mike S., Marketing Manager

Previous Dilemma

Challenging "the customer is right" syndrome

We have a policy that we don't replace items after seven calendar days. Yet, we get customers arguing that we should replace their broken purchase after the seven days are up. How far should we take "the customer is always right?"

—Philip, Product Manager

Summary of Advice Received

Philip, readers have provided excellent insight and questions to ask when you research the issues behind your company's product returns. They recommend studying the issue closely and understanding the motivation for the policy before making sure it is clearly communicated to your company.

  1. Review the return policy.

  2. Research the reasons for returns.

  3. Communicate the policy internally and to customers.

1. Review the return policy

The return policy is dependent on the product and the industry you're in. It might be reasonable not to allow a customer to return a grocery item, with a clearly marked expiration date, seven days after purchase, but it would be inappropriate to institute the same policy on a DVD movie.

Although the customer may not always be right, what's more important is how the company handles the situation and its policy. JoAnna Brandi, publisher of Customer Care Coach, doesn't believe—nor does she teach—that the customer is always right:

Sometimes the customer is flat out wrong. It's insulting to people to tell them otherwise. But wrong or right is NOT really the issue! The issue is your willingness as a company to be flexible, fair and reasonable. Is your seven-day policy unreasonable? Are the customers breaking the product or is there something wrong with it that could be corrected? Does this happen often? If so, why? How much is the customer relationship worth to you? Is one item breaking going to keep the customer from coming back? Does that make sense?

Like many issues around customers, you need to look at the larger picture. Remember that it takes anywhere from six to 30 times more money to get a new customer than it does to keep one you have. From a financial perspective, does it make sense to refund money on a product but keep the relationship strong? I have more questions for you than answers since I don't know your situation. Look at it from a broader perspective and see if that sheds some much needed light on the situation.

And get real about "the customer is always right" stuff; everyone knows that is not true. Remember right or wrong is not the issue. Learn the appropriate skills to communicate skillfully and graciously in any situation. The right/wrong stuff begets defensive behavior and always makes the situation worse.

Another reader who doesn't subscribe to "the customer is always right" believes seven days is short:

As the director of marketing for my company, I deal with complaints that escalate as well. I have no idea what you're selling, but I doubt I would buy from a business setting such a policy. Often I buy gifts well in advance of a birthday party. I also work full time. Who has time to buy and verify that the item, say a child's toy, works and attempt to return it within seven days! Sorry, such a company would NEVER get my business and I can certainly understand why customers are angry.

My recommendation: Extend the deadline…. Clarify what kind of damages would be included/excluded in the policy.

2. Research the reasons for returns

Study the return reasons and determine whether there is a trend. Adrian Woodliffe, director at GENESIS, says there are many sides to the problem posed:

I don't know what type/category of product is in question, so it is difficult to offer an alternative—but what does the industry offer? Is seven days the norm? And, for that matter, can you do something different to the "market?" Could it be a differential for your company? For example (assuming that this doesn't "break the bank" so to speak), what about full replacement, no questions, for up to 30 calendar days? What messages does that send to the customer about how you view relationships, the quality of your product, etc.? But I have no idea of the ticket price of your product(s) so this may well be pie in the sky thinking...more questions than answers, Philip, but they may give you food for thought.

  1. Are the customers fully aware of your policy? Is it in writing, on their receipts, invoices or whatever?

  2. Are there any qualifiers or conditions in addition to the seven days policy? If so, are these also mentioned on communication that the customer receives—are these clauses causing the problem?

  3. (This is the big one!) Does the recurring request for replacement after seven days point to a flaw, problem or poor manufacture with your product(s)? Are the returns for the same product, product line or across several lines?

    Do you keep a record of these "breakages"? What are they showing? Are there any trends? If you don't track this information, maybe you should. Maybe create some sort of customer response mechanism so that people have some way of recording their satisfaction/dissatisfaction?

  4. How do you treat these contestable issues? It might pay to look at the tone/manner/form in which the customer is responded to. Instead of simply saying "no," are you really listening to them (see above)?

  5. What does the company feel about these requests? Not you individually, but rather the company? Senior management must place themselves in the customers' "space." With product XYZ, is seven days unrealistic? Is 10 days more realistic?

And possibly, just possibly, you might be able to leverage something out of this. If going through some sort of review you decide you need to change your policy, then make some noise about it! Advise your customers that you have listened. You stand by your product. Use it as a PR campaign, a differential, as referred to above. A final thought—and one that might be worth exploring a little further—are these complaints symptomatic of something else? Who are these "customers" exactly? Regular purchasers? Or one-off customers? Talking to them, whoever they are, might shed some light on the issues: quality or otherwise of product, misuse, poor instructions, packaging, relationship issues and so on.

John Lewis of iVISION Limited offers more questions:

Why shouldn't we replace broken purchases after seven days if we want happier customers? Are there changes we can make to our policy that would be beneficial to both the customer and the company? Maybe you need to dig even deeper: Why are we getting broken purchases of this number? Is our product quality acceptable? Are we attracting the type of customer we want? Keep asking questions!

3. Communicate the policy internally and to customers

Because we regularly deal with return policies, terms and conditions and many other policies, it's easy for us to forget if anyone knows about them. Sanjeev, marketing executive with Green Packet, offers a response from a customer's point of view:

In some shops I have seen that a policy is made, but it is not well communicated to the customer or to the customer department. You would also like to research the percentage of customers who argue about replacement after seven days. If the number is not very big and if your company does not suffer any losses by doing the replacement, why not change the policy to a 14-day replacement? This will help increase customers' satisfaction, and, as most of us are aware, a satisfied customer will tell four others, but an unsatisfied customer tells another ten.

Once you make a final policy decision, ensure the policy is well communicated to your staff and to your customers. Do you have enough banners, pamphlets and other means saying this policy aloud? Or is this policy stated in the fine print or, worse, in the terms and conditions section? As a customer, if I see the policy clearly stated, then I mostly follow it.

John Lewis believes that the key to this equation is not to blindly believe that "the customer is always right" but more that the customer likes and needs to think she is always right.

There are a couple of business realities that force us to look at it this way. Firstly, if you don't back your staff—they'll leave. It's as simple as that. Secondly, and I'm making a big general assumption here, your customers don't know your business and industry like you do—would you have someone like that working for you?

What I suggest is to look at both the customer and yourself. Some of the questions I would ask would be: Do customers know about our seven-day return policy when they purchase? Should we make it clearer to them?

Theresa Humphreys, marketing manager at North Penn Visiting Nurse Association, also believes the customer is not always right. She recommends that even though you must communicate your policy internally and clearly to customers, you may also need to do some listening:

I am a customer of many companies and I am not always right. Customers may be right or wrong, but they are our customers and they are the reason we have a business and sell products or services. Saying "the customer is always right" puts you/your staff in a lesser position to start off. In that position, you are left to simply comply with the customer's demands rather than offering solutions to a problem or education to the customer.

First, though, I would look at your replacement policy and what it communicates to your customer. Not knowing the product or its use, to me it says you don't stand behind your product and its quality. You may want to rethink the policy. Replacing a broken or defective product shows that you have faith in your product and gives your company a second chance to perform for your customer. Good will goes a long way with customers.

In addition, you may want to look at the reasons for a return after seven days. Maybe your customers don't use the product immediately after purchase, or maybe there is a trend that can be followed with regard to incorrect usage that may require customer education. Customers can cause a good portion of the problems they call to complain about.

If your focus is to sell as many products as possible in a short period of time, then keep doing business as usual until the customers have had enough and go elsewhere. If your goal is to retain customers, have repeat business and expand product offerings, you may want to listen to your customers. They may not always be right, but what they have to say and what they do with their purchasing power is valuable to your company.

The customer is not always right, but the trick is to avoid telling them that and work with your policies.

Does the office know-it-all refuse to admit his mistakes? We have a great customer-care unit of MarketingProfs readers standing by, ready to help.

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Hank Stroll ( is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.