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The Customer is Always… Wrong?

In 1909, Harry Gordon Selfridge, owner of Selfridge’s department store in London, coined the phrase, “The customer is always right.” The intent behind this was to establish a reputation for superior customer service and also to inspire employees to be the best at delivering outstanding assistance and resolution of issues for disgruntled clientele.

This would ultimately drive an increased flow of traffic into their store, where guests would be well-treated, return again and again, recommend the enterprise to friends, and the success of the business would soar.

While the purpose of this theory was grounded in solid logic, and remains applicable in many circumstances, it has also fed into the evolution of the consumer who cannot be satisfied and demands excessive and unreasonable recourse for any infraction, all in the name of customer service. This can then conceivably give rise to the exact opposite result that the mantra sets out to achieve, and instead creates internal instability for your business.

The conclusion is that the customer is neither always right, nor always wrong. There is a distinct gray area to be found within Selfridge’s philosophy. The solution requires the ability to effectively resolve customer displeasure in an effort to retain both patronage and a sound reputation, while also recognizing when a customer just isn’t worth having. The reality is that the majority of clients will have rational expectations and any genuine effort to correct mishaps that occur during the course of their buying experience will be appreciated and accepted. However, there is no avoiding the occasional miser for whom no corrective measure is enough, and the retribution they demand does not remotely correspond to the significance of the blunder in question.

A grocery store customer purchases a gallon of milk with an expiration date that is a week away. Upon returning home from his shopping trip, the customer pours a glass of the milk and takes a sip, only to find that it appears to have prematurely turned sour. He takes the jug of milk back to the store and explains the situation to the Customer Service attendant. He is offered the option of a replacement or refund for the gallon of milk and a $5 gift card to be applied to his next purchase, a solution most would consider reasonable and sufficient. The guest delivers an ultimatum that far exceeds the cost of the item or what could be considered a legitimate resolution (free milk for life or a full refund of his entire grocery bill for that day), and threatens to take his business elsewhere. This same customer is known for repeatedly returning items to the store that are unsatisfactory in some way and demanding exorbitant measures be taken to restore his confidence in the company. The clerk calmly explains that she is sorry they are unable to offer a solution that he deems reasonable, and while disappointed to lose his business, they wish him well.”

The above example demonstrates a clear-cut case of “the customer is always right” as the wrong approach, where the loss of the customer, in this instance, is the best outcome. When assessing best ways to handle challenging situations with customers, consider the following as reasons why consistently adhering to Selfridge’s common catchphrase can prove to be disadvantageous.

  1. It gives the unruly customer an unfair advantage  By catering to the outrageous demands of customers who complain the loudest, they ultimately receive better treatment and reward than their honest, fair and loyal counterparts. Seems a bit backward, doesn’t it?
  2. It undermines the authority we have entrusted our employees with  Often times, dissatisfied customers will ask to speak with a manager when they don’t receive the response they are seeking from the employee they are dealing with. An employer who favors the position of the customer over the expertise of their employees and their ability to appropriately handle a difficult situation exhibits a betrayal of the trust you have empowered them with and a disregard for their decision making authority.
  3. It leads to compromised customer service  Make your employees your priority and watch your business excel.  Happy employees who are put first will put the client first. They are motivated, dedicated, and loyal and are invested in the success of your business. Conversely, employees who are undermined in favor of the client receive a message that they are not valued, that it is acceptable for employees to be treated poorly by clients, and that they are not entitled to respect from either their employer or their clients. Unhappy employees won’t make exemplary customer service a priority and certainly won’t put their best foot forward to positively promote your business and perpetuate a reputation for outstanding service.
  4. Not every client is worth fighting for  You are the expert in your field with a proven track record of satisfying customers. Sometimes a client is just plain wrong in their assertions, or is completely out of line. There is no justifiable reason for continuing to work with those who will never be satisfied or who are unabashedly disrespectful. Know when it’s okay to draw a line in the sand and send someone out the door. Stand firm in your conviction that the process should be rewarding for all.

Knowing the characteristics of the clients you want is as important as knowing the clients you don’t want. Not everyone is a good fit for your business, just as you may not be a good fit for them. Find a healthy middle-ground for building your business and its client base with the understanding that “the customer is always right… until they’re not.”  Right?

—Jenny Catalano