‘The Customer Is Always Right’ – A Fatally Flawed Rhetoric

There is an old saying you have no doubt heard before.

‘The customer is always right’.

This rhetoric has been force fed to frontline staff in every industry for a long time. How many times have you had to grit your teeth, take a deep breath and silently repeat to yourself, ‘the customer is always right’? This is a motto that has been drilled into every young retail or hospitality worker, and has somehow made its way into the psyches of established career positions and business owners.

The underlying motive is, in the main, correct. Essentially, it’s the obsessive endeavour of management to dictate a culture that resolves issues, retains customers and maintains relationships. As critical as this is, there are times when even great customer service should refuse yield to a customers skewed perception of what’s reasonable.

Often the customer is right. There are plenty of examples of bad employees giving lousy customer service. If a customer has noted an issue and brings it to attention, often something or someone needs to change. Customers willing to discuss problems are critically important as open and constructive feedback is essential to every business.

Here we’re talking about customers who will happily inconvenience your team for some fiscal advantage or unwarranted attention. Not to mention the customer’s that will find faults in whatever your team does just because they’d prefer not to have a positive experience. Sounds grim but as we all know, these people exist.

Crowning the customer ‘always right’ infers it will push teams to the pinnacle of great service, but the approach is fatally flawed. The simple truth is that the customer isn’t always right, in fact they can be completely wrong, even downright nasty. In case you think that was harsh, last year Distributive Allied (SDA) Union reported that 44 per cent of retail staff had been exposed to physical or verbal abuse on the job – that’s a lot of mutually unhappy people.

Assuming the customer is ‘always right’ will be a serious disservice to you, your employees, and your customers. Here’s why:

You’re putting your employees against yourself

If you’re lucky enough to have found employees who you trust and respect, don’t undermine the relationship by siding with the customer by default. When you tell your employees ‘the customer is always right’, you immediately position them against the customer – and the customer always wins.

Every business owner wants their employees to be flag flying for their business. An employee who is a great cultural fit and inherently believes in the business values is of unquantifiable value. There is no bigger killer to ambassadorship than having to defencelessly absorb personal and professional criticism at the whim of an unhappy customer. A great employee will acknowledge a problem and move swiftly to address it. They won’t tolerate you or them being expected to side with the customer irrespective of circumstance. Employees should be empowered to stand by your brand with the unwavering support of management standing by them. If not the case, it will lead to resentment of your company and distrust of leadership. Gordon Bethune, ex-CEO of Continental Airlines nailed it when he once said:

We run into customers that we can’t reel back in but 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.

It deflates the mood and kills culture

If a customer is being unreasonable aggressive or needlessly negative, why should an employee feel obliged to be reduced to embracing their midframe by adopting the belief that they are right?

Employees don’t want to be needlessly dragged into controversy. If an employee feels obliged to go far and beyond what is expected of them and what’s considered reasonable for a customer, it will cause unnecessary stress and internal friction. Your team can only fight arson instigated fires for so long before it will start a negative cultural shift and start to taint the experience for all customers.

Then overall customer experience nose dives…

As employees lose the ability to quarantine incidences of irrational customer behaviour, their approach towards customer service becomes one of suspicion and scepticism. Employees then tend to be purely reactionary when servicing customers through fear of over exposing themselves.

Hal Rosenbluth – CEO of Rosenbluth Internation, a corporate travel agency, wrote an excellent book about their approach called ‘Put The Customer Second – Put your people first and watch ’em kick butt’.

Rosenbluth argues that when you put your employees first, they will in turn put the customers first. Put employees first and they will be happy at work. Employees who are happy at work will be happy to go the extra mile and be eager to spread the positivity.

Happy employees lead to the best possible customer service. Believing the Customer is always right leads to resentment and a negative perception of customers. When managers put the employees first, the employees will in turn put the customers first. Employees don’t need to fear customers or management and can focus on providing a relationship – not defending and experience.

An unfair advantage goes to grumpy customers

If the customer is always right by definition, then there is really no limit to how much of your team’s attention they can demand.

Applying the philosophy of ‘the customer is always right’, abusive customers can demand just about anything, after all they’re right by definition, aren’t they? This makes the employees’ jobs that much harder when trying to prioritise customer’s needs. Customer service soon becomes prioritised by customer attitude and no considerations is given to important factors such as the size of their account or their history with your business.

Put simply, it means that abusive people get better treatment and conditions than nice people. That in by character is completely wrong, besides it makes much more sense to be nice to the nice customers to keep them coming back. After all, don’t you want to work with nice people?

It’s a complete waste of finite resource

Every business has limited resources available, so don’t allocate a disproportionate amount of them to customers who repeatedly cause problems. You only have so much time, money and energy to dedicate to customer service and an unreasonable customer or client can quickly eat away most it.

If you’ve tried your very best to address a complaint and the customer still isn’t happy, it’s time to move on from that customer. Use resource to address the concerns of customers who are willing to engage in reasonable dialogue with you. When you focus on meeting the needs of your reasonable customers, you build loyal brand ambassadors.

In his book Customer Centricity, Peter Fader encourages business owners to focus on the customers who matter most:

‘Not all customers deserve your company’s best efforts. And despite what the old adage says, the customer is most definitely not always right. Because in the world of customer centricity, there are good customers…and then there is everybody else.’

Serial entrepreneur and coach Tim Ferriss’ recounts in his best selling book, The 4 Hour Workweek, a personal story of how he nearly hit a mental breaking point because he was trying to please every customer. He soon discovered that a few customers were taking the majority of his bandwidth and causing the majority of his stress. These customers however, only contributed a relatively small percentage of his company’s total revenue. His solution? He gave the clients an ultimatum: if they couldn’t do business his way, he didn’t want to do business with them at all. The result? Some of the clients changed to accommodate his requests. Others refused to change, so he fired them. He now has a net worth of over $100 million so that approach can’t have been too detrimental.

What next?

Take a step back and think about your business and the way you manage your customers. Of course, you want them to have a positive experience! Are you spending too much time trying to please particular customers and not spending enough time with the clients who fit your ideal client mould?

Think about what is best for you and your business. Is there a client you need to fire?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to do next, a good step is to speak with your business advisor. Here at Quantum Advisory we’re passionate about seeing our clients’ businesses thrive and not held back by negative client experiences. If you would like some advice, call our team today!