The Customer Is Always Right?

Did I really put a question mark on this phrase? We’re taught from our first job bagging groceries and ripping up movie stubs that the phrase ‘The Customer is Always Right’ will end in either an exclamation point or period. It’s a subject that has finally got me motivated to begin my blog…


I have a client who is a tremendously successful businessman, salesman, and entrepreneur who currently owns a business that markets to small business owners and folks looking to potentially start their own ventures. He’s certainly someone that deserves to be applauded for his decades of accomplishments though he does a pretty good job of that himself. I have tremendous respect for his drive and work ethic and actually got to know him by investing my company’s marketing dollars with his organization. Over the years we’ve become quite good friends having many interesting conversations ranging from politics and economics to health issues, family, and sports. In fact, I’d say the majority of calls I field from Owner are of a personal nature but with a smattering of business dealings. Over the years I’ve learned the nature of a call can be uncovered in about 3 notes (for any Name That Tune fans out there). A personal call has the Owner speaking at a somewhat high-pitched volume of 7 and begins with a heartfelt “Ferretts, how you doing guy…” while a business call begins at a nearly inaudible volume of 3 at an octave lower with “Ferretts, you got a minute”? More on this later.


Several months back the Owner and I were in a conversation about a potential change or two he’d been looking at on his team and how he was at the point to get me started on a search. He gave me some details on the job and I immediately had a candidate in mind. As I am very familiar with the profile he prefers I typically have lengthy interviews with solid candidates to drill down into their real desire to work in a fast-paced startup, wearing many hats, and for lower pay but potential equity. I had that exact conversation with this young lady and presented her exactly 2 months ago to the day. There was immediate interest on the Owner’s part and we started with having the CEO speak with her for several hours. That conversation went swimmingly and the CEO/Owner/I had a conversation to lay out the interviewing process, which was then conveyed to the candidate.


Owner is a huge fan of The Predictive Index (PI) which is a personality profile he’s used for the better part of 20 years with great success. This Index is an essential part of his hiring process which he uses in conjunction with administering a Wonderlic, thereby gaining insight into both a candidate’s personality and cognitive abilities. If the candidate fits the right PI profile and scores well on the Wonderlic the Owner will invest his time in an interview, otherwise we move to the next person. This candidate apparently had a tremendous PI for the role and a Wonderlic that must have been more than adequate as the Owner sat down with her for the better part of two hours. The feedback was tremendous on both sides and the Owner asked for a Marketing portfolio (the Marketing version of a ‘Brag Book’) and samples of her writing which were quickly handed over. By this time the CEO and Owner had both spent a lot of time understanding marketing programs the candidate has led in the past as well as getting some specific ideas she might explore in the limited capacity that she understood the company itself and what marketing programs they’d attempted in the past.


As December was moving into week two (yes, we’re about 7 weeks in at this point) another pair of interviews had been requested of the candidate, separate discussions with the CEO and also their lead salesman. Both interviews went off without a hitch and discussions of an offer had begun. I had conversations with both the Owner and CEO and it seemed like we were pretty close on what I thought it would take to close the deal. It was kicked into their court to hammer out a plan over the weekend with a plan for us to reengage on Monday and see if we couldn’t finish this thing up before Christmas.


I expectedly fielded a call on Monday night from the CEO who proceeded to walk me through a discussion he had with the candidate earlier that evening. Although I’d been kept in the loop from the Owner or CEO every step of the way I had no idea this call was being made, in fact all indications were the next call from CEO/Owner to Candidate would be offer details. Anyway, the short version of the conversation was they wanted her to create a marketing plan for their company on how exactly she was going to leap their organization from point A to point B in the coming months. Based off this plan they’d decide whether to hire or not. Keep in mind the job itself is for a person to come into the company and create a marketing plan to leap the organization from point A to point B in the coming months!


Can you imagine telling an accountant to finish your personal taxes and THEN you’ll let them know if it’s worthy of your payment? Or chat up a defense attorney and let them know they’ll only see a fee if you agree with the judge’s decision. As screwed up as the Pitt Athletic Department is I’m pretty sure they didn’t tell new football coach Mike Haywood he’d only be hired AFTER he produced the 2011 Recruiting Class. Next time you’re sitting down at a fancy restaurant let the server know that you’re only paying for the meal if it meets your approval…see how that works out for you!


Even after 12+ hours of interviewing, administering a PI & Wonderlic, review of sample writings and a Marketing portfolio I could understand asking for a summary 30-60-90 type business plan but was shocked to hear they just told her that the document she would be hired on to create and execute is now a prerequisite for an offer, with no guarantee that one is forthcoming. The candidate was taken aback by this request which somehow sent shockwaves through the CEO and Owner resulting in the call I received. After a solid conversation with the CEO on potential missteps he’d taken and some creative ways to get this hire back on track it was agreed that CEO/Owner/I would talk later that night.


A call begins at a nearly inaudible volume of 3 at an octave lower than normal with “Ferretts, you got a minute”? After a ten minute sermon on the life of a startup and how the Owner has been hiring people for decades we get around to talking specifics on this latest request. It’s certainly never easy for a small business owner to pull the trigger on a hire but the Owner refuses to make this offer without “knowing exactly what she can do” while adding in items like “if this is the dream job she says it is, she’ll do it” and “we didn’t pursue her, she pursued us” (which, by the way, is not at all the case). A recommendation to discuss a 30 or 60 day contract with the expectation of full time work (more or less, a paid trial) was shot down as the Owner was now fully insulted that I wouldn’t just acquiesce to this latest request and force the candidate to provide, for free, the same service she was expecting to be paid for. At that point the Owner decided it was best of us all to part our separate ways and forgo any future business dealings.


Now is the customer always right? Absolutely not!


Yes, customers pay my salary and, sure, I’m not seeing a fee for my work on this one but have we really gotten to the point where companies will now just cross the line of ethics because a candidate naively announces this to be a dream job and they see this as a way to exploit that interest and enthusiasm? I hope not, or I’ll have to seriously consider a career change.



Views: 96

Comment by Sandra McCartt on December 21, 2010 at 3:04pm


I know you are steamed after all the time and interviews but a couple of things to consider.


It is not unusual in advertising, marketing and some sales positions for a client to ask someone to give them a proposal for a marketing plan if they were hired.  The CPA analogy doesn't quite work because although there can be some "creativity" in accounting there are set rules and regs that have to be followed but even in the accounting industry it is not unusual for a client to take past years tax returns and current numbers to a CPA firm, ask them to review all of the above and give them an estimate on doing their work and if they feel that they can save the client any money on taxes.  All of that done before an engagement letter is signed.

As to a marketing plan by your candidate.  If she did propose a marketing plan it could be done barebones as to ideas without a lot of detail but even if it were proposed in detail the product of her work would be protected by copywrite, just as asking a web site designer to design a web site, if it were not accepted and paid for but was later used , one letter from an attorney would require payment for the use of copywrite material.


Advertising agencies and advertising professionals often offer full campaign ideas and "spec"commercials that are produced by the agency at their expense to land the client.  If the client uses their work product they agree in advance to pay for it.

All your candidate needed to do was to do the marketing plan and present it along with an agreement that if she were not hired the company agreed to pay her at a certain rate for the use of her work product.

So perhaps a request that might have been made by your client with the understanding that if they used any of her work product she would be paid if not hired and maybe not a crossing of the line of ethics.

Comment by Jennifer on December 21, 2010 at 4:34pm

Once Owner has the plan, why would they need the employee?  They could just implement the marketing plan on their own.  I realize you're out the fee but that's not the way to do business. 

Comment by Bill Ward on December 23, 2010 at 4:03am



Obviously this client is wrong in the way they handled things and you were absolutely right to tell him where to go. Unfortunately, the real problem lies in the fact that your contact does not trust your judgement. Why? Ask yourself this; if you have a track record of successful hires with this individual, why is there the need to conduct his own assessment BEFORE he decides to invest time with your candidates face to face? You lost control of the process and allowed the client who thinks he's the expert, to run a three ring circus disguised as an interview process. Unfortunately, this is all too common in the recruiting world. The way to never let this happen again is to either move to a retainer based model where you can still say no to idiots like this and earn most your fee or decide to take back absolute control of the process and refuse to be second guessed by clients who think of you as nothing more than another recruiter that throws crap at the wall to see what sticks.

Don't let experiences like this kill your spirit. Keep at it!

Comment by Keith Ferretti on December 23, 2010 at 9:13am



Thanks for the comments. Other than the timeline and a 2nd, or at that point 3rd, discussion with the CEO the process went exactly as planned. My interview, CEO interview, Predictive Index + Wonderlic, Owner interview. At that point, as in the past, the decision to hire/not hire has been made. He's always going to use the Predictive Index whether the candidate comes from me or through his own network. He's used it for 3000+ hires and no matter what the level of trust he has in my judgement it will always be part of the process before he meets with a candidate.


So the only real unexpected addition to the process, before that ridiculous call on Monday, was a conversation with the head of sales which certainly wasn't an odd request seeing as those two would work so closely together.  The fact that this client consulted me before any move has ever been made with a candidate for positions in the past yet decided to reach out directly for this request tells me he knew what he was asking for was completely unethical and flat out wrong.


Sandra, thanks for your comments as well. The problem is she had already spelled out a slightly more than bare bones marketing plan in the interview, which was well received. In fact It was a point of reference Owner made when he called me to deliver feedback. But in this case, Owner (delivered through CEO) made it known he wanted specifics after she took this week to evaluate some options because he wanted to see her work in action and "see how she thinks". You are right that she could have done all this and handed in a note from an attorney to protect herself and if this ever comes up again I will certainly put that suggestion on the table, as it is an excellent one.


I might add that Owner is in the media world and writes some articles from time to time on different issues he encountered in business and how he dealt with them. He published one around Thanksgiving, in the middle of the hiring process of this marketing candidate, that had me wondering if I was really dealing with the type of client I want my name attached. This excerpt in particular stands out....



Years ago, and when I was starting one of my businesses, the customer that eventually would become our first client told us that he would sign the contract if we could “put his mind at ease” regarding the security of the data he was about to turn over to us. This individual was also making a visit to our office (his company was in Baltimore) and on numerous occasions he expressed concern about the security of his customer data.

At the cost of a couple of phone calls and by rummaging through some junk piles left behind by a large company that had just moved out of our building, we were able to rig up a completely useless, but formidable-looking security camera. Complete with blinking red light.

Had our prospective customer merely traced the coaxial cable, he would have soon realized that it went nowhere. But it hung above the door marked (and he did cost us about 20 bucks to have the sign made up) “Customer Data Room – Entrance to Authorized Individuals Only.”

It sealed the deal.

I read that over Thanksgiving and was uncomfortable with not only the fraud that was portrayed but the pride shown in perpetrating it. Looking back (it was only a month ago, mind you) I should have pulled out of the deal at that point because if he's going to fake security cameras and computer rooms to seal a deal he's obviously not against pulling some outlandish pranks for his own benefit. As with everything this was a learning experience and something I'll grow from, both as a recruiter and business owner


Comment by James Todd on December 23, 2010 at 11:05am

Keith, I'm with you on this one.  The request is unreasonable.  I place brand managers for a couple of the larger CPG companies and I cannot imagine any manager ever making the request you received.  The development of a marketing strategy  requires the disclosure of a considerable amount of what most businesses consider to be trade secrets or at the least confidential material.  Cost, pricing, personnel, inventory, distribution, legal, sales, promotional deals, product development and much more must be known by someone in order to develop a complete marketing plan.  Your analogy about the CPA cuts both ways, many company's would be reluctant to share financials with someoe that did not have a fiduciary or ethical responsibility to handle the information confidentially.  If the development of a marketing plan is as important to your former client as you let on then he would be crazy to disclose that information to someone who could then take it to his biggest competitor. 

Comment by Sandra McCartt on December 23, 2010 at 11:13am


After reading the excerpt from his blog i would agree with you.  Someone who takes pride in being "slick" is not worth the effort of plugging "rat holes" to do business with them.  Based on that little blurb i would suspect that had she provided him with a fleshed out marketing plan and a note that he would acknowledge copywrite he would have thrown a fit that his integrity was being insulted.  So bottom line.  Screw him, feed him fish heads and go on down the road.

It's been my experience that it's difficult to know at the outset if someone is going to get shifty when it's time to sign on the dotted line.  I would stay in contact with this candidate to ensure that he doesn't call her back in three months and offer her a job going around you.

Anyone involved in advertising and marketing would have no problem with signing an agreement to protect creative license of the work product.  So a good test of the integrity of the client who wants a full proposal.

Comment by Thabo on January 1, 2011 at 6:11am
Keith, this customer is precious. I definitely do not think their ask was reasonable. To be honest, I am more interested in knowing what they think they would have got out of a plan put together based on a few interactions with the business on interview. That limited information makes for creative assumptions, rather than someone who is thinking with knowledge of the business and industry. There is something wrong with what they asked during the laborious interview process if it did not leave them feeling like they knew the candidate and what the candidate could offer. You don't know until you get there, so sometimes too much information before making a decision confuses your decision making ability rather than improve it.


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