3 Scenarios When the Customer is Not Always Right

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Why the custom“The customer is always right”

That was first said in 1908 by César Ritz, the celebrated French hotelier credited with saying ‘Le client n’a jamais tort’, which, strictly translated, is ‘The customer is never wrong’. Marshall Field also used the phrase in his iconic Chicago department store and it was latter coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London (and a former Marshall Field’s employee).  The phrase is typically used by businesses to convince customers that they will get good service and to motivate employees to give customers good service. The phrase has been ingrained in businesses across industries and sizes.

However, is it true? Is the customer always right?

The answer is NO. Providing excellent customer service should always be a goal for businesses, but there are times, for various reasons, where the customer is wrong.

For example, my first job was working at a retail store.  This store in particular had a very strong customer centric policy which put a lot of pressure on the employees, by having very ambitious service goals, while also meeting tough sales goals. We’d bend over backwards trying to please customers while trying simultaneously to adhere to a never-ending list of rules to follow. This usually led to a high turnover rate, failing to meet sales goals, and, ironically, poor customer satisfaction ratings.

So, where is the balance?  There’s a time and place to know when to stand up for your employees instead of the customer. Some customers might not like that initially, but they’ll come to respect your honesty and transparency. Sometimes it is advantageous to the company for some customers to become ex-customers.

Below are three situations where employee satisfaction come before customer satisfaction:

  1. When the customer is actually wrong: Customers do make mistakes (gasp) or may even be abrasive. Some use the phrase “the customer is always right” as a weapon against the employee or company. In cases such as this, when management supports the employee it sends two positive messages.  One, the employee feels supported and empowered to use judgement to provide good service within the business parameters provided.  Employees who feel supported have higher engagement levels, which lead to a higher commitment to customer service.  This begins a very positive satisfaction spiral.  Second, it sends a message to customers that they have the right to good service, but not the right to anything that they want.
  2. When the employee is wrong: Are your employees making a lot of mistakes? Do they even care how good of a job they’re doing? Employees who are apathetic and dissatisfied are more likely to make mistakes and this trickles down to how they treat customers. Our own research has shown a positive correlation between employee engagement and customer satisfaction, so seek out their opinions before it’s too late!
  3. No one’s wrong, but there are problems with the employee/customer relationship: There may be problems of which you are not aware. By staying ahead of issues with information about the customer experience from both your employees and customers, you can avert problems and improve relationships. This creates a self-fulfilling cycle of engaged employees leading to satisfied customers, leading to increased employee engagement and higher customer satisfaction, and on and on.

Some of the most important information you need can come from your most unhappy customers or your most unhappy employees. The two are intrinsically linked and you need to monitor both. Read our blogs on how employee satisfaction can increase business success!



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Kyle Burnam

Kyle Burnam is the CEO of Infosurv and the leader of its sister company, Intengo, where he oversees all client research and R&D projects. Having been in the industry since 2005, Kyle brings a wealth of experience to the table and an innovative eye to every project.