Monthly Archives: June 2013

Top 5 Reasons Why “The Customer Is Always Right” Is Wrong


I stumbled onto this blog post, (a bit of an oldie) from a reference in a book I’m reading that I thought was just too interesting and thought provoking to not share. (Who doesn’t like a bit of food for thought, right?) I’ve woven some of my thoughts into this post where I paraphrase some of the original post’s main ideas. To read the original post in its entirety, click the first link above or at the bottom of this post where I’ve also made reference to it.

“Let me get this straight: The company will side with petulant, unreasonable, angry, demanding customers instead of with me, its loyal employee? And this is meant to lead to better customer service?”

The customer is always right. Right? Wrong! Sometimes the customer is not right – and ‘enforcement’ of such a generalized idea can actually be counterproductive – if not damaging – ironically, to your customer service efforts, among other areas including another important set of stakeholders – your employees!

Be that as it may, this is the mantra that seems to have been loosely, but universally adopted by organizations around the world, since the expression was coined over a 100 years ago by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London in 1909.

The original post goes into some detail, citing some interesting examples, around how the adoption of such an idea – without first establishing some reasonable parameters can hurt the very thing you’re trying to achieve – providing good customer service as one tactic for gaining and retaining your customers. While there’s an old adage around how it’s more expensive to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one, anyone in the ‘people business’ (HR) would likely tell you that the same can be said for an employee so there’s certainly a balance to be struck.

Before getting into the 5 reasons with some of my thoughts woven in, here’s an excerpt from the blog, citing an example of where a CEO of a major airline had a decision to make in regard to a customer service issue.

One woman who frequently flew on Southwest, was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.

She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.

Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s [Kelleher, CEO of Southwest] desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’”

The top 5 reasons

1: It makes employees unhappy

The ‘customer is always right’, despite its honourable intentions, feels like a recipe for employee frustration and resentment, because the ‘law of averages’ says that the customer will not always be right. If employees know that their employer will always give them the benefit of the doubt, it’s pretty easy to imagine what kind of impact that will have with the employee in terms of confidence, empowerment, productivity and the like.

2: It gives abrasive customers an unfair advantage

How many times have we seen this? As the saying goes, ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’ and though it doesn’t seem right, it happens. The most vocal customers wind up with best service, while those that quietly continue accept the status quo – despite the fact that these ones may be among the longest standing, or most loyal – end up with an unfair advantage over the rest. In addition to just feeling wrong, this also can result in retaining more of your ‘bad’ (editorial note – ‘most vocal’ and ‘bad’ are not necessarily the same thing) customers and losing more of your ‘good’ customers. Something to think about.

3: Some customers are bad for business

In the same way that businesses have to make decisions around segments and target markets, so too must they decide on which customers it makes sense to continue to invest in when returns from said customers may just not be worth the potentially negative impacts associated. Going back to the earlier Southwest example, this CEO understood the trade-offs his organization was facing around how continued effort to try and please this one particular customer, so he made a decision in the best interest of his organization. (Editorial note – the original blog post was published in 2006 (and the example may even be much older) before Twitter and social media had taken off – so you’ll want to use this approach at your own risk!)

4: It results in worse customer service

This is really what it comes down to. If your approach to customer service is based on an outdated and arguably flawed premise (that was very likely never used as intended anyway), versus a fundamental trust in the foundation of your organization – your employees – you’re going about it all wrong and the results will show. They’ll show in high turnover, low productivity and cynicism which ultimately all lead your customer service efforts in the wrong direction.

5: Some customers are just plain wrong

Again citing the earlier example, as well as my reference to the unscientific (but good-in-a-pinch) ‘law of averages’, sometimes the customer will be ‘wrong’. Sometimes they will be ‘right’. Sometimes, and likely more often than not, the situation will be somewhere in the middle. The point is that deciding in advance of the situation that one party will always have the playing field slanted in their favour makes little sense. Rather, ensuring employees are ‘empowered’ (buzzword alert) to make judgement calls based on the situation will typically yield better results.

To wrap up I’ll end with a quote referenced in the original blog post, ‘Put your people first. And watch them put the customers first.’



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