The phrase “The customer is always right” was originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London, and is typically used by businesses to convince customers that they will get good service at the company and convince employees to give customers good service.
However, I think businesses should abandon this phrase once and for all — ironically, because it leads to worse customer service.
Here are reasons why “The Customer Is Always Right” is wrong.
1. IT MAKES EMPLOYEES UNHAPPY
Gordon Bethune is a brash Texan (as is Herb Kelleher, coincidentally) who is best known for turning Continental Airlines around “From Worst to First,” a story told in his book of the same title from 1998. He wanted to make sure that both customers and employees liked the way Continental Airlines treated them, so he made it very clear that the maxim “the customer is always right” didn’t hold sway at Continental.
In conflicts between employees and unruly customers he would consistently side with his people. Here’s how he put 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 Bethune trusted his people over unreasonable customers. What I like about this attitude is that it balances employees and customers. The “always right” maxim squarely favors the customer which is a bad idea, because, as Bethune says, it causes resentment among employees.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of bad employees giving lousy customer service but trying to solve this by declaring the customer “always right” is counter-productive.
2. IT GIVES ABRASIVE CUSTOMERS AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE
Using the slogan “The customer is always right,” abusive customers can demand just about anything — they’re right by definition, aren’t they? This makes the employees’ jobs that much harder when trying to rein them in.
Also, it means that abusive people get better treatment and conditions than nice people. That always seemed wrong to me, and it makes much more sense to be nice to the nice customers to keep them coming back.
3. SOME CUSTOMERS ARE BAD FOR BUSINESS
Most businesses think that “the more customers the better”. But some customers are quite simply bad for business.
Danish IT service provider ServiceGruppen proudly tell this story:
One of our service technicians arrived at a customer’s site for a maintenance task, and to his great shock was treated very rudely by the customer.
When he’d finished the task and returned to the office, he told management about his experience. They promptly cancelled the customer’s contract.
Just like Kelleher dismissed the irate lady who kept complaining (but somehow also kept flying on Southwest), ServiceGruppen fired a bad customer. Note that it was not even a matter of a financial calculation — not a question of whether either company would make or lose money on that customer in the long run. It was a simple matter of respect and dignity and of treating their employees right.
4. IT RESULTS IN WORSE CUSTOMER SERVICE
Rosenbluth International, a corporate travel agency since bought by American Express, took it even further. CEO Hal Rosenbluth 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 the employees first, they put the customers first. Put employees first and they will be happy at work. Employees who are happy at work give better customer service because:
They care more about other people, including customers
They have more energy
They are happy, meaning they are more fun to talk to and interact with
They are more motivated
On the other hand, when the company and management consistently side with customers instead of with employees, it sends a clear message that:
Employees are not valued
Treating employees fairly is not important
Employees have no right to respect from customers
Employees have to put up with everything from customers
When this attitude prevails, employees stop caring about service. At that point, genuinely good service is almost impossible — the best customers can hope for is fake good service. You know the kind I mean: courteous on the surface only.