The Customer is Always Right?

You’ve heard this adage before. Some often believe it. And honestly, there’s a bit of truth to it. But the truth is, the customer pays your bills and if they stop paying your bills, they’re no longer your customer.

I was reminded of this actually during the testimony of Dr. Fauci before the Senate a few weeks ago. To be clear, neither the Senate nor the CDC is a customer here, nor is the President of the United States. But, I think it ties into the thesis I want to make.

Over the past few months there’s been a lot of discourse over whether states should shut down, for how long and how and when they should open up. At the extreme ends you have folks who seem to argue for a continual shutdown to save as many lives as possible and the people who seem to argue that the economy is far more important and that any shutdown is a bad idea.

Dr. Fauci has been accused of wanting to “quarantine the entire country” and is the subject of a hashtag campaign, #faucifraud. During the Senate hearing, Senator Rand Paul took several swipes at Dr. Fauci including a statement implying that some people might treat Dr. Fauci as the end-all. Finally, with only 32 seconds left, Dr. Fauci gave his reply:

“Well, first of all, Senator Paul, thank you for your comments. I have never made myself out to be the end all and only voice in this. I’m a scientist, a physician, and a public health official. I give advice, according to the best scientific evidence. There are a number of other people who come into that and give advice that are more related to the things that you spoke about, about the need to get the country back open again, and economically. I don’t give advice about economic things. I don’t get advice about anything other than public health. So I wanted to respond to that.”

I think this was an incredible reply and one that I think behooves any consultant to keep in mind. Dr. Fauci politely but firmly refutes Senator Paul’s comment about being the end all and then points out what his qualifications are. He then suggests that there are other experts, in other fields, who should be consulted. He then reiterates the limitations of his advice.

As a consultant, this mirrors my own experience. A client may ask me to recommend a HA/DR strategy for them. I might go ahead and recommend some sort of Always On Availability Group with multiple synchronous replicas in one data center and then an asynchronous replica to a second data center. I might then recommend daily backups to tape with the tapes taken off-site. Everything would be encrypted and we would test failovers on a regular basis. With that, the proper selection of hardware, a proper deployment setup, and a completely developed runbook for various scenarios, I could probably guarantee them nearly perfect uptime.

Then, the CFO steps in and points out that their budget is only 1/20th of what I had planned around and that trying to spend more would bankrupt the company.

Then the VP of Sales points out that the business model of the company is such that in reality, they could operate for several hours of downtime and while it might hurt business a little bit, it wouldn’t bring them to a halt.  In fact, they suggest that the order system just be done with a bunch of Excel spreadsheets that accounting can true up at the end of the month. After all, they just want to focus on sales, not on entering data into the system.

Finally the CEO steps in. They decide that it’s true, the company can’t afford a 24/7 HA/DR setup that is the envy of NASA, at least not at this time. Nor do they think the VP of Sales plan has much merit since it won’t allow future growth into online sales and while it might be easier for the salespeople to just jot down stuff, it would mean hiring more people in accounting to figure out the data at the end of each month.

Instead, they direct the CTO to work with all the parties involved to develop a system that can have 3 hours of downtime, but costs no more than 1/10th of what I proposed, and  that also incorporates features that allow them to move to a more advanced HA/DR setup down the road and also will eventually allow for online sales.

So who was right? Me at my extreme of a huge investment in hardware, licenses and resources, or the VP of Sales who wanted to do the whole thing using some Excel spreadsheets.

Both and neither. Either of our ways would have worked, but neither was the best solution for the company.

I think good experts realize exactly where their expertise begins and ends. My role as a consultant is to provide the best advice I can to a company and hope that they take my advice, at least as it is applicable. And I should understand that every situation is different. In these cases, the customer is always right. Their final decision might not be what recommended, but ideally they’ve taken it into consideration.

Finally though, I have to recognize that there are situations where I may have to withdraw myself from the situation. In the above scenario, I crafted a situation where compromise is not only a viable option, it is perhaps the best option. But there are times when compromise is not an option. If a potential client came to me and they were dealing with PII data and refused all advice in regards to encrypting data and other forms of data security, it would be in my best interests to simply say, “here, the customer is wrong” and recuse myself. So in some cases, the customer may be outright wrong, but they should also stop being my customer at that point and would no longer be paying me.

So, do we re-open the country completely or do we shutdown everything until the fall? Honestly, I’m glad I’m not the one making that decision. I don’t think there’s a single answer for every community. But I think the best leaders will take into account the best advice they can from a variety of experts and synthesize the best answer that they can and adjust it as more data and experience come to light. It’s simply not practical to prevent every possible COVID-19 death. But it’s also not ethical to re-open without a plan or even thought as to the impact.

Neither extreme is fully right.

 

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