A customer at the check-out in a shop
A customer at the check-out in a shop

Is 'the Customer is Always Right' Still a Good Business Model

Paul Kiernan

In 1909, American Business magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, who gained his fortune with a retail store in London that garnered him the nickname “The Earl of Oxford Street,”  coined the phrase, “The customer is always right.”

In 1909, American Business magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, who gained his fortune with a retail store in London that garnered him the nickname “The Earl of Oxford Street,” coined the phrase, “The customer is always right.” The full quote is, “right or wrong; the customer is always right.” This delightful phrase soon became the mantra of business and the hallmark of customer service.

But is it true? IS the customer always right? And better yet, should the customer always be right?

Different times

In the 1900s, mass communication was limited, and word of mouth, ad hoc customer reviews, spoken in salons and at dinner tables, charity events, and social gatherings, was how one’s business became known. Yes, there was newspaper advertising, but the word on the street and in the salons was it. As the saying goes, vox populi, vox Dei.

There was no internet or social media, and the number of stores like Selfridge’s were limited and survived on extraordinary customer service. Much of the way we do business has changed. In Selfridge’s time, no one bought things online, and clerks did returns face to face.

This evolution, due to technology, a larger population, and more needs, has forced a change. With that change, we need to think about customer service and how we conduct it and examine if the customer is always right, is this customer-centric ideology still holding water? Is it still a productive and intelligent way to run your business?

No, No, it’s not, and here are a few reasons why.

The mantra impedes excellent customer service

A man and woman on a cliff the man appears to be kicking the woman off

You certainly want your customers to be happy and return often, but what about your employees? If you have a staff that handles irate customers, the kind we have grown to dub “Karens,” and you work under the customer is always right model, who do your employees turn to?

If abuse occurs daily, and you never back your employees, only living by the customer is always right; eventually, they will grow disenchanted and angry. This employee will subsequently foist this emotional state on the angry customer. That customer will sense the employee's disrespect and get even more enraged, and now you’ve got an enormous problem on your hands.

A happy and harmonious work culture is optimum for excellent customer service. Mistakes happen, customers get angry, and employees must know how to fix things quickly and efficiently. If you have your employee’s back, they will be more apt to help the irate customers with a smile, provide that excellent customer service, and keep the customer coming back than if you live doggedly by the customer is always right.

Some customers are wrong

Some people are looking for a shortcut, maybe running a scam. If the customer is complaining about something that is not your fault, not something the business is responsible for, is that customer right? Should the company or the customer service employee be forced to assume ownership of a mistake that’s not theirs?

Again this comes back to your relationship with your employees. How can they trust you if you force them to assume guilt for something they did not do? If employees distrust their employer, the drive to do good work lessens, and the customer service slacks.

There are those times when the customer is wrong, and pretending they aren’t is not doing you any good. Your employees need to know how to deal with a wrong customer as politely as possible, that’s for sure. However, if your employees hear you state the customer is wrong and feel supported, you have trust and a happy working environment, which translates to better customer service.

Not every customer is worth the hassle

a mauled and bloody doll carrying a knife

The word exclusive is big in marketing and sales; it implies something not everyone is privy to. The most exclusive places don’t need the label; they exude exclusivity through their merchandise and appearance. These are the places that have the implied velvet rope outside and are usually not victims of Karen- like behavior. Not every place can be or needs to be exclusive.

If your business is more general and more welcoming to the population at large, you’re not going to use exclusive as a deterrent to bad customers. Even if you’re not exclusive, you can still be discerning.

At some point, to keep your business’s reputation solid, you may have to decide that this customer is just not worth the problems, and losing them isn’t going to be a great tragedy.

This choice is a slippery slope and needs to be considered carefully. You cannot decide that you don’t like the look of someone and ask them to leave; you’ll find yourself in the crosshairs of lawsuits up the wazoo. However, if the customer pays bills late or doesn’t pay at all, suppose they complain about everything and make outrageous demands on everyone’s time and attention. If keeping them as a customer upsets other customers and costs you money, then it’s time to let them take their business elsewhere.

A discerning business means you respect your employees and other customers enough to set limits on abuse by a customer. It shows that you care about who represents your brand and are willing to break a few eggs to keep it in high esteem.

Sometimes a customer is wrong, and how they react to that situation shows you a lot about them. When their lousy behavior gets too much, there is nothing wrong with saying no.

You can’t please everyone

You need to get into your head and believe this is the truth. Not everyone will be satisfied with your product or service, customer service, or the look of your business. Some people are determined not to like anything, and they want to make your problem. Don’t let yourself or your customer service employees fall into that mindset.

Some people are just never satisfied, and that will not change. The time comes when you face one of these types where you have to say enough and take the loss. Let it go. You will be happier, your employees will be happier, and your other customers will be pleased with the time and attention freed up for them after saying no to the problem customer.

You don’t need to have millions of customers and fawning fans to be successful; what you need is thousands of genuine, loyal customers. If you’re more discerning, you’re better prepared to deal with how customers impact your business.

Let them be wrong

a sheep in a classroom in front of a chalkboard resding 2+2=5

Which is different from let them eat cake.

You have to allow for times when the customer is wrong and understand that it’s not the end of your business or the world. People are people. People make mistakes, get angry, and say outrageous things. When you believe in your company, respect your employees, treat all your customers with attention and care, and do your very best to correct mistakes, you’re doing all you can.

The problem arises when your wish that all customers were polite and decent doesn’t come true, and you spend valuable time trying to figure out why when it is simply human nature.

Now is the time to adjust to the customer-centric model and accept that the customer isn’t always right, and there is nothing wrong with making that clear when necessary.