Is the Customer Still Always Right?

I recently had an experience that had me wondering what ever happened to the maxim: “The customer is always right.” It was coined and made famous by retailers including Selfridges and Marshall Field’s (now Macy’s) around the turn of the 20th century. It’s a phrase that most of our parents and grandparents had ingrained into their brains as children, and yet it somehow appears to have been lost in translation among the generations – and businesses – born within the last 20 to 30 years.

the customer is always right...right?With my over 15 years of personal experience in customer service, it is surprising to me that so many businesses have either forgotten this key factor in customer loyalty and retention, or – worse – they simply don’t see its relevance in today’s society.

While many of my recent experiences as a customer would lead me to believe that I – as a customer – am no longer as important or “right” as a company’s profit margin, I don’t think I’m the only one around left wondering what happened to the importance of the customer experience. In my quest to discover what happened to the application of this seemingly lost phrase, I googled it word-for-word and came up with over 5.25 million hits, with over 170,000 blog posts involving the saying in the last 12 months alone.

So I asked myself, “Is the Customer Still Always Right?”

One post I found on American Express Open Forum indicates that there is a secret that many business owners are perhaps loath to acknowledge: the customer is not always right. Andy Beal, CEO at Trackur, emphasizes that “some customers are so wrong, you sometimes feel like a fired-up baseball umpire that just wants to get in the face of your customers and scream at them just how wrong they are.

“So now that we’ve acknowledged that the customer is not, in fact, always right,” Beal continues, “why is this adage so popular? … You see, the customer is not always right. But, and it’s a big “but,” the customer always thinks they are right.”

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I think, in some way or another, we have all been there. We’ve been the business professional dealing with someone akin to the Vinegar Boy’s mother, where we’re frustrated to the point of exasperation and cannot possibly understand where the customer is coming from or how they even feel justified behaving the way they’re behaving. We’ve also been that customer (although perhaps to a lesser degree of intensity and higher degree of being in the right); whether the facts can be supported or not, we feel that we have been wronged and we’re looking for some type of resolution.

“That’s what’s important to remember,” Beal explains. “There may be many incidents where you know that the customer is 100 percent wrong, and couldn’t be any more wrong if their name was Mr. W. Rong from Wrongsville, Wronginham. The key is to swallow your pride and look beyond the need for you to justify your company’s actions.”

Beal concludes by advising us to “treat your customers the way you would want to be treated—even if you knew you were not right – and your business will flourish because word of mouth will treat you well and you won’t get distracted by the Mr. W. Rong’s of the world.”

I think this is great advice that is too frequently forgotten. We all learned how to apply the “Golden Rule” to others in grade school. We are all human and we all make mistakes – businesses and customers alike, but if you want to strengthen the relationships you have with your customers and keep them loyal, then knowing exactly who is right and who is wrong doesn’t matter in most situations. The important thing to focus on is that the customer always deserves to be treated right and with a professional respect and courtesy.

As a business owner, however, we need to understand that our employees are also – in a sense – our customers. Another article, posted on Customer Service Point, reminds us to remember that “You’re in business. And in business you don’t have to take every deal. You can draw the line at abusive behavior by the customer. You can draw the line at customers lying to take advantage. You can draw the line at customers stealing. In fact, you can draw the line anywhere you want.”

The important thing for you to decide as a business is where that line is going to be drawn, and then be consistent. When managing a call center, I acknowledged that sometimes customers just need to vent their frustration. Once they understood they were being heard, they would usually calm down and we’d be able to determine a course of action together. However, sometimes these customers became verbally abusive, offensive or irreconcilable; it was when this behavior changed, especially to our front-line representatives, that we drew the line.

When a customer crosses the “unacceptable behavior” line, your concern should not be for the customer so much as for your employee and your business. The Customer Service Point article continues by explaining that “when a customer actually does cross the line, you can tell them that you no longer want their business. And at that point, they cease to have the right to be right.

“The customer is always right. But not all customers need to stay customers.”

Do you think the saying, “The customer is always right” is still important for businesses today? Why? Why not?

Did you read the Vinegar Boy story? Do you think the employee (Aaron) was right? What about how the manager responded to the situation? Would you have handled things differently? How?

How have you trained your employees to handle “wrong” customers the “right” way?

Where do you think that businesses should “draw the line” of when the customer is right and when the customer is wrong?

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