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Finding The Balance Between “Let Buyers Beware” and “The Customer Is Always Right”

Listen to the audio version. 👆


I like to imagine that the phrases “Let buyers beware” and “the customer is always right” originally came from people telling their friends to stop being dumbasses and accept responsibility for their decisions or actions.

The problem with snappy phrases like these is that they lose nuance, context, and knowledge of how to apply them appropriately over time. It’s like a really shitty game of telephone.

Now, we see customers and business owners leaning on these phrases as a way to avoid shouldering responsibility.

The truth is that everyone has responsibility in the customer-service provider relationship.

The hard pill to swallow is that the distribution of responsibility isn’t 50-50.


Customer relationships are bound to have problems. Both parties are responsible for the customer-service provider relationship. As the business owner, you are more responsible for driving the partnership and navigating missteps, regardless of who makes them.


  • Responsibility hot potato

  • Lessons from improv West Coast Swing

  • Missed beats

Responsibility Hot Potato

Customers and business owners all occasionally do the following:

  • Misinterpret things

  • Miscommunicate

  • Not follow through with something they were supposed to do

  • Not read or only skim something we were given

  • Skip a step because we are tired or overwhelmed

Taking responsibility and bearing the natural consequences of our actions, inactions, and decisions is uncomfortable.

It might mean we lose money and time, take a ding to our reputation, or things don’t get done the way we want.

Thanks to Loss Aversion*, it feels super painful, even if it’s small in the grand scheme of things.

The natural reaction is to try to eliminate the pain by minimizing one’s responsibility in the situation.

I think this is ultimately where the phrases “Let buyers beware” and “The customer is always right” stem from - An attempt to quickly stop the pain of the consequences of our actions.

So it doesn’t surprise me to see people play responsibility hot potato - quickly tossing responsibility to the next person and trying not to be the last person holding it when the time is up.

As business owners, we can’t play responsibility hot potato. We have to be willing to hold it when it’s ours to hold, and when it’s our customers who have to hold it, give them heat-resistant gloves to make it bearable.

A potato that has "responsibility" on it and it's on fire

Lessons From Improv West Coast Swing

Imagine being partnered with someone you’ve never met.

A random song starts playing, and you have to dance together.

No prep time, no quick discussion.

Just…start dancing together.

This is exactly what happens in improv West Coast Swing.

I’ve watched far more clips of these dances than I’d care to admit.

It makes you wonder how they pull it off without even 5 minutes to discuss, and sometimes with no prior history with their dance partner or song.

The best dancers make it look like they’ve practiced the routine for ages. Not like they just made it up on the spot.

It’s done with excellent communication, a baseline of “moves” to pull from, and clear roles.

The lead’s job is to create and direct the momentum of the partner and communicate how they wish to dance.

The follower goes where the lead takes them, but they have room to add their own spice to the moves. This makes the dance fun and unique and acts as communication for the lead, who may adjust based on what the follower is silently communicating.

You lead, customers follow

The relationship you have with your customers is a lot like improv West Coast Swing.

You’re the lead. You have a plan and have to communicate so your customers can follow.

Your customer’s job is to follow and also communicate with you as you ‘dance.’

As the lead, you take in that communication and adjust the dance as needed.

But inevitably, someone will mess up.

Whether someone missed a beat, misunderstood a cue, or the music cut out for a minute, you improvise by using your baseline of moves and keep it moving.

Short of your customer metaphorically walking off stage or choosing to stand there screaming, it’s your job to keep the dance moving.

In your relationship with your customers, you both have responsibilities. You shoulder the most and are deemed the most responsible for how the dance turns out.

A scale with a pineapple character on one side weight it down. It says "The responsibility balance" and "The responsibility is not shared equally."

Missed beats

Whether your customer is right or not is irrelevant most of the time.

Here’s the deal:

From your perspective, you’re right. From their perspective, they’re right. Perception is reality and all that jazz.

If you’ve done any research on how memory works, you’ll know that while our brains are like supercomputers, they make shit up sometimes or favor information that aligns with our beliefs while ignoring the giant neon sign that gives us more information.

Because of that, it’s best to default to “The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

There could have been a miscommunication somewhere or something else that led to the point where there’s tension.

If your dance partner missed a beat, you wouldn’t stop the dance to tell them they need to go back to pre-k since they can’t follow an 8-count - you’d improvise and get the dance back on track.

Arguing about who is right has no winners.

The only way to dance together is to be partners, not adversaries to win against.

Be charitable in your assumptions of your dance partner and lead when there’s a misstep - no matter who made it.


Working with customers is like dancing with a partner. One leads, and the other follows. In the dance that you do with customers, you lead.

I’ll leave you with this quote that I think sums this up nicely. It’s from the January 1914 issue of Mill Supplies:

From Earl William Gage, “I believe that such a deal between the salesman and the customer, and the customer and the salesman, works both ways and that both have their portion of the deal to support.”


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