Article

Why the customer is not always right

"The customer is always right" is a time-honored business philosophy. But is it true?

By Erin Hueffner, Staff Writer

Published August 17, 2021
Last updated August 26, 2021

“The customer is always right.”

If you’ve ever worked a day in the service industry, you’ve seen this slogan plastered on a break room wall. The idea was coined by a turn-of-the-century retailer, and it’s so common that many businesses make it a mandate for their customer service teams. But, like any principle, “the customer is always right” shouldn’t be taken literally.

On the surface, this customer relations philosophy is simple and seems to make sense. Customers, after all, are the reason for being in business. They help you pay employees and build your brand when they send friends and family your way. Without customers, you wouldn't have a company. So it makes sense to keep them happy.

That still doesn’t mean your customer is always right. In the long term, it’s unsustainable to agree with every customer's whim. There’s a more nuanced way to approach your customer service strategy that will serve you better. Here’s why.

History of “the customer is always right”

Harry Gordon Selfridge is credited with coining the term “the customer is always right,” but the idea is attributed to various retail pioneers at the turn of the century, including Marshall Field. In the early days, this idea was revolutionary. It meant treating customers with respect and dignity, something that wasn’t commonplace.

The idea was revolutionary.

In the early 1900s, "The customer is always right" meant treating customers with respect and dignity, something that wasn’t commonplace.

Selfridge, who founded the department store Selfridges in the United Kingdom and Field, owner of Marshall Field and Co. in Chicago, realized early on in their career that their business depended on happy customers. Though it’s unclear who first used the phrase, both retailers made it a core business value. Staff were told to treat their customers as if they were always right, even if it was obvious they were wrong. It showed customers they were special, and the change in attitude brought shoppers into their stores.

“The customer is always right” stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing idea of the day, when caveat emptor was a common legal term. We know it as “let the buyer beware.” This philosophy puts all the burden of a purchase on a customer—if a shirt is stained and they discover it at home, it’s too late. No returns allowed. The seller didn’t have to help the customer at all. Victorian pharmacies carried “magic health tonics” laced with cocaine and morphine that claimed to cure teething troubles in infants. The streets and newspapers were flooded with advertisements making spectacular claims to get customers to open their wallets. Retailers could straight up lie to customers and get away with it. So the notion of treating customers with any kind of respect was revolutionary.

Why the customer is not always right

While the idea that customers deserve respect is absolutely true, the fact is the customer is not always right. When management sends the message that customers are never wrong, it can put their frontline workers in a very awkward position. Being told that the customer will always get their way no matter what can be extremely frustrating and demoralizing to a team, says Roger Paulson, customer service practice director at the University of Wisconsin E-Business Consortium. It can pit management against employees and be a culture killer.

But beyond that, it can lead to poor customer experiences. “If you’ve got associates that are trying to move heaven and earth, it can take them away from other customer interactions that would be more meaningful,” says Paulson. When your team is spread too thin trying to meet an unreasonable customer expectation, it won’t have that time to devote to the rest of your clients.

The truth is, this customer service philosophy was never meant to be taken literally. It wasn’t about letting customers get whatever they wanted, no matter what. Rather, it gave employees the chance to listen to their customers with empathy in a time when consumer protections were virtually nonexistent. Times have changed, and customers have much more power today. Companies can be held accountable for making misleading claims about their products. What’s more, customers have more choice today than ever before, so they can take their business elsewhere if they’re unhappy with service.

customer is not always right

Customers are sometimes just wrong

No one can be right all the time, and that includes your customers. Sometimes, they are simply misinformed about how a product works. This is an opportunity for your business to be proactively helpful—adding answers to an FAQ, training customer service associates on how to handle common customer complaints, or correcting a confusing product description.

But sometimes a disgruntled customer can be unreasonable. Your team might be faced with an abusive customer. No one should have to deal with outright degradation or threats. If this happens, management needs to support its teams. If employees are constantly being berated by customers and don’t receive support from the company, morale can plummet. This can take a real toll on your team, and that leads to high employee turnover and poor customer experience.

Saying the customer is always right doesn't make it true. Sometimes customers are wrong, and employees need to be trained to handle these sticky situations.

Aside from that, saying the customer is always right doesn’t make it true. Sometimes customers are wrong, and employees need to be trained to handle these sticky situations. Taking ownership of an issue the business isn’t accountable for can lead to even more unrealistic expectations and set your team up for failure. Paulson recounts a legend from the early days of retail to illustrate this idea.

“One day a customer came into a Nordstrom and went to the service desk with a snow tire and he said, ‘I want to return this tire, it’s just not right, the quality is not there and I demand that you take it back.’ And the legend goes that the salesperson gave the man a refund, no questions asked, even though Nordstrom had never sold snow tires,” says Paulson.

While on the surface this sounds like an extraordinary customer service story, adopting this mentality can be really bad for business. What would it take to accept these non-store returns at every store, every day? Are there any actual benefits to this experience, or will it cause a major revenue loss? What impact does this have on employee happiness?

What to do when the customer is wrong

There are many situations in business when a customer is completely wrong, whether it’s in their treatment of your staff or their knowledge of your product. While it’s easy to go on the defensive, there are ways to work with customers to help change the experience. Here are some things you can do.

  1. Focus on empathy

    When a customer is upset, sometimes they just want to be heard. Approaching a tough situation with empathy can help to diffuse the anger. That means listening to what the customer is saying and putting yourself in their shoes. And, it means caring about their concern, not just focusing on whether or not you think it’s valid.

  2. Dig into the problem before offering a solution

    Customers often have an idea of what they need. But if that idea is built on the wrong information, giving them what they ask for up front may not actually resolve the problem. If the issue isn’t a simple one, customer service staff should be empowered to help talk the customer through their requests to get to the root of the problem. Then, they can offer reassurance and potentially find an alternative solution that is a better fit.

  3. Let the customer know they’re wrong, but do it with kindness

    There are times when the best thing to do is gently tell the customer they’re wrong. For example, a customer might have purchased an item from a different store but asked to return it to yours, or showed up for an appointment on the wrong day. In those cases, letting the customer know they’re mistaken without shaming them is a good approach.

  4. Don’t tolerate inappropriate customer behavior

    If a customer is becoming verbally aggressive or physically abusive toward your staff, it’s time to say something. For example, if a customer is shouting at your staff, asking for something that’s illegal, or swearing at other customers, as a leader you need to step in and tell the customer in no uncertain terms that this is not acceptable behavior. You have to be willing to lose a customer to protect your integrity and the wellbeing of your staff.

Times have changed. Customer service philosophy has changed, too.

“The customer is always right” is a long-beloved adage in the business world. But like any saying, it takes diving beneath the surface to understand what it really means, and whether it still applies to the way businesses do things today. The goal is still the same: to deliver the best experience possible to customers. But that doesn’t mean it should come at the expense of the team. None of this is easy, but it's worth the effort. When your customer experience strategy has a thoughtful approach that balances the needs of your customers and the needs of your business, you're on the right path.

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