Is the customer always right?

The saying “The customer is always right” was first used by London department store guru Harry Selfridge in 1909. Since then it has been adopted by many businesses worldwide. But is this saying as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago, or are we setting ourselves up for a world of pain by adopting it? In this article, we examine if the customer is always right.

Sometimes the customer is NOT right. 

OK, just so you know, I’ve never been a fan of the saying. To suggest that a customer is right all the time is to suggest that they’re perfect, and we all know that no one is perfect. But what do the experts say?

Gordon Bethune is a brash Texan who is best known for turning Continental Airlines around From Worst to First, a story he tells in his book of the same title from 1998. He wanted to make sure that both his customers and employees liked the way Continental treated them, so he made it very clear that the maxim ‘the customer is always right’ didn’t hold sway at Continental.

Putting the customer second.

In conflicts between Continental Airlines employees and unruly customers, Gordon would consistently side with his people. He believed that this policy was essential to turning around a company that was in dire straits. Here’s how he describes it:

“When we run into customers that we can’t reel back in, our loyalty is with our employees. They have to put up with this stuff every day. Just because you buy a ticket does not give you the right to abuse our employees. We run more than 3 million people through our books every month. One or two of those people are going to be unreasonable, demanding jerks. When it’s a choice between supporting your employees, who work with you every day and make your product what it is, or some irate jerk who demands a free ticket to Paris because you ran out of peanuts, whose side are you going to be on? You can’t treat your employees like serfs. You have to value them. If they think that you won’t support them when a customer is out of line, even the smallest problem can cause resentment.” 

So Gordon trusts his people over rude and unruly customers. I really like this attitude, because it balances out customers and staff. The “always right” maxim unfairly favours the client, and that can lead to staff resentment, and this can undoubtedly create hostility in the work place.

Why give abrasive customers an unfair advantage?

Honestly, does anyone really want to give a difficult customer an advantage? I would much rather lose a client today than create years of headaches down the track. By saying the customer is always right basically means you’re going to give better service to bad clients than good ones, and that just seems wrong to me. It should be the other way around. Some customers just deserve to be cut loose, and although it doesn’t happen a lot at Simply Print (because our clients are amazing), there have been a few occasions when we’ve said “I’m sorry, I just don’t think we can help you.”     

Bad customers creating bad customer service.

We’ve all been to that business where everyone seems to be high on happy pills. It’s obvious that the team members just love their jobs, and can’t do enough to help you. Can you imaging if a client came in and started verbally abusing them, and the boss just stood there and did nothing? I would imagine that they’d be a bit resentful to say the least. No one goes to work to cop abuse from anyone. So when the business owner makes an effort to side with the staff, it creates a feeling that they’re being valued, and this will flow through to even better customer service.

Some customers are just bad for your business.

Some people think that the more customers they have the better, but some customers are just bad for business. The amount of stress that an abusive or irate customer brings stops staff from doing what they should be doing, and that’s their job. Furthermore, it creates a feeling of low self esteem, and no one wants that at work. 

Perhaps Herb Kelleher from Southwest Airlines sums it up best, and you’ll notice I’m using examples from airlines here. This is because frequent flyers are among the highest complainers of any industry. All airlines have large numbers of staff who’s only job is to deal with complaints.

Herb makes it very clear that his employees come first – even if it means dismissing customers. But aren’t customers always right, people ask? “No, they are not,” Kelleher snaps. “And I think that’s one of the biggest betrayals of employees a boss can possibly commit. The customer is sometimes wrong. We don’t carry those sorts of customers. We write to them and say, “Fly with somebody else. Don’t abuse our people.”

And some customers need to be dropped.

Getting back to Gordon Bethune from Continental, below is a section from his book “From Worst To First”.

A Continental flight attendant once was offended by a passenger’s child wearing a hat with Nazi and KKK emblems on it. It was pretty offensive stuff, so the attendant went to the kid’s father and asked him to put away the hat. “No,” the guy said. “My kid can wear what he wants, and I don’t care who likes it.”

The flight attendant went into the cockpit and got the first officer, who explained to the passenger the FAA regulation that makes it a crime to interfere with the duties of a crew member. The hat was causing other passengers and the crew discomfort, and that interfered with the flight attendant’s duties. The guy was again warned to put away the hat.

He did, but he didn’t like it. He wrote many nasty letters. “We made every effort to explain our policy and the federal air regulations, but he wasn’t hearing it. He even showed up in our executive suite to discuss the matter with me. I let him sit out there. I didn’t want to see him and I didn’t want to listen to him. He bought a ticket on our airplane, and that means we’ll take him where he wants to go. But if he’s going to be rude and offensive, he’s welcome to fly another airline.”

The fact is that some customers are just plain wrong, that businesses are better off without them, and that managers siding with unreasonable customers over employees is a very bad idea, that results in worse customer service.

Grant’s world.

My son Grant works at a large retail store in customer service and witnesses on a daily basis the very best and very worst of human behaviour. A lot of people working in retail could relate to this. Anyway, if Grant doesn’t get verbally abused at least once a day by a customer, he starts to wonder what’s going on. I’m not talking about teenagers or kids complaining. These are fully grown adults who think it’s perfectly OK to scream the F word in full earshot of their own children and other customers. The worse thing is the customer is usually not right. They’re either trying to get a refund without the docket, or sometimes without the item, and a few times without the docket or the item. I’m not kidding. 

And when Grant says no, they scream “Are you calling me a @%*#! liar? I want to speak to your manager”. Thankfully, this store has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to abusive customers. The manager usually comes down and says to the customer “No, Grant is our employee and has the right to refuse you. Furthermore, he has the right to have security remove you from the store if you continue to upset our staff and customers.”

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