When it comes to pleasing customers, it doesn't matter whether they're right or wrong. What matters is solving the problem at hand

When I bought my restaurant, in 1981, I wanted it to become cutting edge: customer centered, employee empowered, socially responsible. I read the business rags and listened to the gurus for the newest and greatest teachings. Everywhere I went I heard businesspeople chant the mantra that the customer is always right.

I even proudly hung on my wall that ubiquitous sign, which is plastered on the walls of progressive companies throughout the land: Rule Number 1: The Customer Is Always Right. Rule Number 2: If the Customer Is Wrong, See Rule Number 1. I all but insisted that my staff pledge their allegiance to the infallible customer.

My, how times have changed. There's no way you'll hear me say now that the customer is always right. We wouldn't be doing ourselves or our customers any favors by insisting on that.

Recently, a customer ordered finger sandwiches for a business lunch. We advised against it. Wrong product, we warned her: too dainty, too small to feed hungry men and women at midday. Serve our hearty deli sandwiches, we suggested. "Oh, no," she replied. She insisted on finger sandwiches. Guess who called up, panicking, because "these sandwiches aren't going to be enough food"? "No problem," we said. We quickly created a bodaciously big sandwich platter and delivered it in a New York minute. Even made a little money along the way.

I don't think I'd have an ounce of credibility with my staff if I tried to tell them that woman wasn't dead wrong. But the issue isn't who's right or wrong. The issue is that we need to please the guest. From firsthand experience, I can say it's a lot easier to figure that out before the sale than after. We call that the "meeting of the minds." Despite our best efforts, we just didn't get the meeting of the minds we needed to please that particular customer. It happens. If we were perfect, we'd be healing the sick and helping the blind to see.

When I get an angry guest on the phone, screaming because -- I tell you no lie -- he doesn't like the kosher pickle we serve on the side with our sandwiches, I'm thinking, "Get a life," while I'm saying, "What kind of pickle would you like?" Because the issue isn't the pickle with the strong hint of garlic. The issue is making the guy feel good. Is there really a right or wrong here? I don't think so. I have, however, a vested interest in making the guy happy. If he's happy, he'll come back.

I love my customers. They're the best. And while it's our goal to make them happy, it's not our job to heal the chronically miserable. Life's too short to fool with people who lack basic social skills. It's OK not to work with people who are rude, abrupt, and unpleasant.

I send implacable guests down the street. I can remember one customer for whom we catered a party, and she hammered us on every detail. Even our dessert slices were too big. It was crazy. The next year, when she called us to do her party, I gave her the name of another caterer. The customer appreciated my willingness to admit that we weren't able to please her. Before the event, her new caterer called and thanked me for the referral. Afterward the competitor teased me about the "gem" of a referral. Hey, maybe that caterer could have pleased her.

The customer-is-right philosophy is based on a win-lose mentality. I don't want to build relationships based on my losing and your winning. I like the idea of a relationship's being mutually beneficial. And what kind of attitude do we foster in our employees when we preach a win-lose concept to them? We're telling them that business is a zero-sum game in which there's a winner and a loser in every transaction.

In my restaurant it's not ham-and-cheese sandwiches we're selling. It may look like ham and cheese. It may taste like ham and cheese. But it's not a ham-and-cheese sandwich. It's a good time. People spend their money with businesses that make them feel good. It's as simple as that. We try to make customers feel good. And not because they're right but because I believe that most organizations exist to serve their customers' desires.

Got a sign similar to mine? Rip it down. The customer is not always right. The customer knows it. You know it. Your employees know it. In fact, customers are frequently misinformed, unclear, and selfish. Who cares? It's not the issue. Make them feel good and you'll be giving them what they really want: satisfaction. You can bank on it.

Jeffrey Mount is the president of Wright's Gourmet House, a $1.9-million, 34-employee restaurant and catering company in Tampa.