The customer is not always right.

As expected, eventually, “the bug” arrived. That’s why I’ve been locked up, working from home. Part of my free time I have spent watching series. One of them caught my attention as a research marketer, which is why this writing. The show is “Mr. Selfridge,” a 4 season series available on streaming. The story is about American retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge, who founded Selfridges department store in the UK, a pioneer of retailing at the beginning of the last century, and who coined the evergreen phrase: “The customer is always right.”

At the time, this idea was revolutionary because “The customer is always right” contrasted with the prevailing idea of the era, when salespeople had no training in helping the customer. Pharmacies were selling “magic health tonics” with cocaine and morphine, newspapers were flooded with ads making spectacular claims to get customers, and retailers could lie directly to buyers and get away with it. So the idea of treating customers with respect was highly appreciated and of enormous value.

The pandemic has left us, as humanity, with extremely invaluable life lessons. One of the most profound ones is the many nefarious, ignorant people who believe everything they read on the internet and feel they deserve everything over others. Among them are a thousand examples: those who do not believe in vaccinations, those who do not want to wear a mask, or those who feel rules do not apply to them.

Throughout my professional life as a marketer in the field of research and business intelligence, I have witnessed firsthand how this phrase has been misused and even misunderstood over the years. Particularly now that the world has suffered a pandemic that has cost us all, in one way or another. During all these months, complaints from users against restaurants, stores, hospitals, to name a few, have skyrocketed, even with cases of physical violence towards employees for refusing to serve people who, in their frustration and anger, become verbally abusive. An important part of this comes with several generations who have been led to believe that they are unique, unequaled, and indispensable. The reality is that no one is, and nothing justifies abuse.

While this customer relationship philosophy seems to make sense because, ultimately, the customers are the reason for the business, it does not mean that the customer is always right. It is unsustainable to agree to every customer’s whim in the long run. 

While the idea that customers deserve respect is true, the fact is that the customer is not always right. While the customer is a priority, so are our employees, so when the message is sent that customers are never wrong, it puts workers in a very uncomfortable position. Going one step further, if employees try to move heaven and earth to meet an unreasonable customer expectation, they won’t have that time to devote to other customers. 

The reality is that the customer service philosophy is great. The customer should be treated well, respected, and empathized with, but that does not mean they should do whatever they want, especially when certain customers often abuse the situation and mistreat employees.  

Times have changed, and so have customers. Today we are in a market of buyers and not sellers; therefore, the customer has much more power. So much so that companies can be held liable for making misleading claims about their products. In addition, customers have more choices than ever before, so they can go elsewhere if they are not satisfied with the service.

Saying that the customer is always right doesn’t mean it’s true. Sometimes customers are wrong, and employees need to be trained to handle these difficult situations. Sometimes, a disgruntled customer can be unreasonable or even abusive. No one needs to be bullied or threatened. Even if this happens, management must support their teams. Suppose employees are constantly reprimanded by customers and do not receive support from the company. In that case, morale will plummet and toll the team, resulting in high turnover and a poor customer experience.

What to do when the customer is not right?
There are many situations in business where a customer is wrong. While it’s easy to get defensive, there are ways to work with customers to help change the experience. Here are a few things to do.

Dig deeper into the problem.
Customers often have an idea of what they need, but they don’t always know precisely what it is or how to explain it. So giving them what they ask for, such as a refund, doesn’t necessarily solve their problem. That’s why customer service staff must be trained to help and get to the root of the problem. 

Focus on empathy
When a customer is upset, sometimes they just want to be heard. Approaching a difficult situation with empathy can help dispel anger. That means listening to what the customer is saying and putting yourself in their shoes. It also means caring about their concern, not just focusing on whether or not their claim is valid.

If the customer is wrong, you need to kindly let them know that.
There are times when you should tell the customer that they are wrong, but always with respect and without embarrassing them.

Inappropriate behavior should never be tolerated.
If a customer becomes verbally or physically aggressive or abusive to staff, it cannot and should not be allowed. If a client yells at or insults staff or other clients, you should intervene and let them know that such behavior is unacceptable. Sometimes you have to be willing to lose a client to protect the integrity and well-being of your staff and other clients.

Times have changed. The philosophy of customer service has changed as well. “The customer is always right” is a beloved adage, but, like everything else, it has also changed. Yes, we need our customers, and as a business owner, the goal should remain the same: to deliver the best possible experience. However, that doesn’t mean it should be at the expense of our people. 

For Times Media Mexico / The Yucatan Times

José E. Urioste
January 10, 2021
Twitter – @JoseUrioste_
Facebook – JoseUriosteMx

José E. Urioste is a Yucatecan businessman and a Marketing Research and Business Intelligence professional with more than 25 years of experience. He is a member of several boards of directors. Over the past 20 years, he has collaborated in mass media writing on business-related topics and as a radio host on political analysis. He is the author of 3 books.