Revisiting The Mantra "The Customer Is Always Right" - Fora Financial
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Revisiting The Mantra "The Customer Is Always Right"
March 07, 2020

Revisiting The Mantra "The Customer Is Always Right"

Certain cliches have a way of working into our everyday language. Some tend to oversimplify important issues. “The customer is always right,” is a case in point. The sentiment is nice, but on face value, it’s misleading. Steve Jobs famously said, “Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” So clearly, there are smart entrepreneurs who don’t consider their customers to be always right.

Still, it’s a valuable idea. For example, a retail associate has little to gain from arguing with an angry customer. However, to understand this mantra and how it applies to your business, let’s revisit it.

The History Of “The Customer Is Always Right”

The idea that the customer is always right was popularized in the early 1900s. It’s not clear who said it first, but it became associated with department store founders. Harry Selfridge, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field used the phrase to emphasize the importance of satisfying customers.

Their intention with this phrase was twofold. On the one hand, it promised customers they could expect great service. On the other, it helped to convince employees to provide great service.

At the time, the idea that the customer is considered “always right” stood out. Back then, organizations were more likely to err on the side of “let the buyer beware.”

Selfridge, Wanamaker, and Field, though, preferred to “trust customers and risk being taken advantage of occasionally.”

To them, this was better than getting a reputation for being rude. The phrase wasn’t intended to mean that the customer is correct in a moral, logical, or ethical sense. Instead, it communicates that, regardless of the situation, customers come first.

While that might seem altruistic, it was also quite practical. Giving an irate customer what they want is generally far less expensive than tarnishing your brand.

At Selfridge, Wanamaker, and Field’s department stores, it quickly became clear that these men were on to something. People were flocking to their stores. The idea didn’t stop there. It spread throughout the world in different forms. 

Ritz Carlton, a Swiss company, took on the slogan which, in English, means “the customer is never wrong.” There are also equivalents in German, Japanese, Spanish, and Italian.

Today, the mantra still holds up, to an extent. However, as interactions between businesses and customers have changed drastically, the meaning of this mantra has evolved.

In Defense Of The Customer Always Being Right

Defenders of the mantra will focus less on the precise words and more on the intent. This is a valid defense as the mantra isn’t meant to be taken literally. Obviously the customer, like any human being, is fallible; they can be wrong.

However, if your goal is to serve the customer, that customer is right about how they ought to be served. Further, they can decide what is correct simply because they’re the ones paying.

Your business model doesn’t exist without customers, so giving them the benefit of the doubt is good business. Further, not following the sentiment of this mantra can have significant, negative effects on your business.

Today, with information being more accessible, treating the customer with the benefit of the doubt is critical. A single negative experience with customer service can turn into a negative review for your business.

According to Bright Local, negative reviews can drive away 40 percent of potential customers. Also, customers tend to spend 31 percent more with a business that has excellent reviews.

These reviews can only come from great customer service. Plus, fair or not, angry customers tend to be much more likely to leave reviews than customers that are happy.

Moreover, for customer-facing employees, this mantra makes it easier to navigate customer issues.  If your organization operates as though the customer is always right, there’s no room for interpretation.

Customer-facing employees can simply focus on what they need to do to serve the customer. Otherwise, these employees are forced to make a judgment call and risk enraging an already unsatisfied customer.

…But Are They Always Right?

In the literal sense, no, they customers aren’t always right. Sometimes they’re jerks or they’re in a bad mood. Sometimes they make mistakes and blame it on your employees.

That doesn’t mean you should be rude back. However, it does mean that, as a leader, it’s not always right to take the customer’s side.

For example, if a customer is being blatantly disrespectful, you should stand behind your employees. Otherwise, people won’t want to work for you.

Beyond this, there are other reasons the customer isn’t always right. In the following sections, we’ll review why, sometimes, the customer isn’t right.

Keep Your Employees Happy

Your customers aren’t the only people your business relies on, you need employees too. Moreover, you’re more likely to attract good employees when you treat them well.

The problem with the “customer is always right” mentality is that it assumes the employee is wrong. This subjugates the employee to the customer, enabling worse behavior.

The result is an unhappy employee who may even feel unsafe. This leads to morale problems that hurt productivity and cause disengaged employees. If you want to prevent the mistreatment of your employees, the customer can’t always be right.

Unfair Advantages For Rude Customers

Newton’s third law of motion says that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In reaction to the action of the “customer is always right” mantra, customers are emboldened. If they’re always right—according to the business—how can they be wrong?

Given this position of superiority, abusive customer becomes even more difficult to rein in. Again, the mantra puts employees in a bad position.

Even worse, you effectively reward rude customers for bad behavior if you assume they’re always right. The louder and angrier they are, the more wrong your employee must be.

Some Customers Are Just Bad For Business!

Bad customers can hurt the value of your business. For example, if you attend a sporting event and become disruptive, you get kicked out. The fact that you’re a paying customer doesn’t mean you’re free to disrupt other people’s experience.

Plus, your disruption lowers the value of the sporting event itself. Future customers won’t want to come to an event if they know the staff will tolerate disruptive people.

This Mantra Makes Customer Service Quality Worse

Richard Branson is a vocal proponent of putting customers second and employees first. He says it results in better customer service when your business supports employees.

By putting employees first, you show them they’re cared for. In response, they’re happier and more proud of the work they do. As a natural consequence, these happier, prideful employees deliver better customer service.

Conversely, when you follow the “the customer is always right” mantra, you end up with unhappy employees. As a result, customer satisfaction suffers.

Some Customers Are Simply WRONG

In life, there are certain people you must stand up to you. In business, it’s no different. If a customer is threatening, disruptive, or disrespectful to others, your business can’t stand for it. If you do allow that kind of behavior, you’ll face a backlash from other customers, employees, or both.

Beyond the moral obligation to do so, it’s good business to stand up to customers who behave poorly. Not only that, you should empower employees to address customers who are wrong. That way, your employees can create an environment that’s safe and respectful for everyone.

How This Phrase Translates On The Global Stage

It’s not just the United States where this phrase dominates. Different versions of “the customer is always right” exist around the world.

For example, the Spanish version translates to “the customer always has a reason.” Therefore, it’s on employees to find the customer’s reason. While this is slightly different than the American variant, the sentiment remains.

Some countries have more than a cultural influence from this phrase. It’s also been written into laws.

In Germany, for example, where the mantra is “the customer is king,” consumer protection laws provide support for customers. Japan also has laws designed to protect customers and prevent businesses from unfair practices.

In many ways this phrase translates well to the global stage. It’s good to protect consumers who need it. Especially from powerful businesses. However, none of these laws or cultural practices mean that the customer is infallible.

Our Last Thoughts

Clearly, “the customer is always right” is an outdated phrase. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a valuable sentiment. Customer centricity is a key competitive advantage at many of the largest companies in the world.

Apple, Google, Amazon, and other tech giants have shown how scalable a great customer experience is. However, a great customer experience doesn’t require you to bow to customers’ every demand. In some cases, you need to correct the customer, or potentially cease working with them.

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Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Fora Financial is a working capital provider to small business owners nationwide. In addition, the Fora Financial team provides educational information to the small business community through their blog, which covers topics such as business financing, marketing, technology, and much more. If you’d like to see a topic covered on the Fora Financial blog, or want to submit a guest post, please email us at [email protected].