Why 'Customer is Always Right' is Wrong

Published on: August 1, 2021 (Updated on: April 22, 2024)

'The customer is always right'. This is a very common statement in business and marketing. However, things were not always so.

Why customer is always right is wrong

Before the 19th century, the general rule was the Latin 'caveat emptor' meaning 'Let the buyer beware'. That is, the purchaser assumed the risk that a product could fail to meet his expectations.

But in 1909, Harry Gordon, the founder of Selfridges department store in London coined the phrase, 'The customer is always right'.

This was immediately accepted by other businesses and used as a standard. Customers were then assured of great services from companies they make purchases from.

David Ogilvy in his 1964 book, Confessions of an Advertising Man wrote:

The customer is not a moron, She’s your wife.

David Ogilvy

According to Sears, Robuck, and Co. publication from 1905:

Every one of their employees is instructed to satisfy the customer regardless of whether the customer is right or wrong.

These sayings are to inculcate a sense of quality customer support. They provide an avenue that pushes employees to make decisions that benefit customers to build loyalty and trust.

Companies believe it’s better to trust customers and risk getting taken advantage of than to get a reputation of being disrespectful.

However, this customer-centric ideology appears to be outdated and quite irrelevant. It can create a hindrance on the path to truly outstanding customer services.

Business owners have dehumanized the purchase process and empowered bad behavior with rewards through fear. The fear of defamation and bad portray of their businesses.

Let’s consider this story from one of my favorite series, 'Where Stars Land'.

At a checkpoint in an airport, a couple passenger tried to make their entry. The man was with table water. According to the rules binding entry into planes, no food, no water, or dangerous objects are allowed in.

The employee at the checkpoint politely told the man that he can’t take the water in. The man got furious and asked him, why?

This led to a series of arguments caused by the man. The man poured the water on the employee’s head and even went ahead to hit him with the empty bottle. Despite the heated situation, the employee remained calm. He watched without doing anything.

The man grabbed the employee by his uniform, rudely. At this point, the employee lost it. He held the man by the collar and requested an apology.

This got the couple angrier. The wife recorded the scene but of course, only the part where the employee retaliated in defense.

The news got to the manager that an employee got into a fight with a passenger. The manager told the employee to apologize and threatened to fire him. The employee could not, for he did nothing wrong.

The employee said his job was to filter out everything not allowed on the plane. And that was exactly what he did. He told the couple to apologize instead. This got the bottle couple angry again. An older employee who is a partner to the young employee had to apologize on his knees.

Another manager from the security unit came in and scolded the couple. He told them they had violated the aviation security law. The employees are working to protect you and yet you hit them?

The couple remained adamant. The man lied that the employee hit him first. He told his wife to bring out the video she recorded as proof.

It was here that another employee interfered and showed the original video containing the whole scene. The couple left the airport embarrassed.

Why this story? As a business owner, you must have had to put up with outrageous behaviors from customers, like the bottle couple!

As the employee, you remain calm to deal with such customers in relation to business ethics. Other times because of the saying that customer is always right.

But some customers believe that you keep up with these things because no matter what happens, you want their money. You want them to patronize you.

How about you show such rude, arrogant, and complacent customers the exit door? That sounds like it! Some customers are not worth your services. They in fact can be detrimental to the growth of your business.

Have you ever wondered what strictly adhering to this saying can cost you? Have you ever thought about how dangerous bad customers can be to your business? To what extent should you tolerate bad behaviors from customers? Should you let them go?

This is about to get interesting as the answers to these questions are the reasons why the phrase is wrong. These answers you will discover from the next few lines. Number 7 is the real deal!

Why is the phrase 'customer is always right' Wrong?

1. It results in worse customer service

The main purpose of the phrase is to create wonderful and efficient customer service. But, things can go opposite. Quite ironic! If you put your employees first, they, in turn, will put the customers first. If you put the customers first, you’re demeaning the efforts of your employees. This will lead to worse customer service as your employees will become unmotivated.

Alexander Kjerulf writes:

Believing the customer is always right is a subconscious way of favoring the customers over the employees. This can lead to resentment among employees. When managers put the employees first, the employees will then put the customers first. Put employees first and they will be happy at work.

People who are happy at work perform better, they are more strong-willed, motivated, encouraged, and mindful of customers.

2. It Makes your employees miserable

When companies say the customer is always right, they favor the clients and disregard the opinions and expertise of their employees.

If you tell your employees to treat customers like they are always right, you will make the employees miserable. Just like the employees from the story.

You have to let your customers know that while you value them, you won’t let them abuse your employees. The team manager from the security unit in the story gave this example.

3. Bad customers affect the growth of your business

Customers can make outrageous demands and frustrate your employees. Consequently, they create a terrible aura around your business.

If this type of aura is created, the working environment is affected, your other good customers get affected as well. This hinders your services and affects the growth of your business.

4. Bad customers get unfair benefits

The truth is, no matter how far you bend, some customers can never be satisfied. Irrespective of how much time you devote to finding solutions to their problems, they will still be unhappy.

So cut your losses, respect your employees and your other customers and let these people go.

5. It affects your finances

The customer is always right philosophy will completely drain your budget. This can cause you to run out of business. No customer is worth you going out of business.

Don’t lose your company while trying to overstretch yourself with customer services. If you do, you won’t be around to serve the customers that need you and enjoy what you offer.

Most of these stories end up with nobody being satisfied at the end of transactions. You will lose a lot of money, time, and resources. This will affect the overall finance of your company.

6. You have limited resources

Your resources are limited and here’s why policies are created. Build your policies and observe them strictly. The policy acts as a contract for doing business between you and your customers.

Rather than let these customers drain your resources, focus on utilizing them effectively.

7. It affects value creation for your loyal customers

Letting go is the absolute solution to deal with bad customers. They affect the experience of good customers who appreciate your business and create more value for you.

Rather than letting bad customers hinder the value that good customers have for you, let them go.

Besides, these happy customers tend to spend more money on your brand.

According to a Harvard Business Review, customers who are happy with your products and services spent 140 percent more. They also drive word-of-mouth marketing, telling their peers on social media about their experience. This means even if you spend less than 1 percent of your time on customers like the bottle couple in the story, you are likely to lose money in the long run.

In conclusion, not all customers are bad. You as a business owner should be able to differentiate a bad customer from a good one. You should be able to tell when you need to adhere to the saying “customer is always right”.
Sometimes, it could be a minor misunderstanding where fighting fire with fire won’t help. Some of these customers end up being great advocates for your business.

Nevertheless, great customers service is a great marketing strategy.