No, the Customer is Not Always Right

April 30th, 2014 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on No, the Customer is Not Always Right

angryIf you ask most any business what their motto or creed is for customer service, typically what you will hear is “the customer is always right.” The phrase was originally coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London in 1909. Businesses use the line to achieve two goals: one, to convince their customers that they will receive excellent service at their company; and two, to make sure that the employees provide the best customer service possible.

For years this has been the gold standard – the customer is always right. But is that really true? I don’t know anyone in “real life” who is always right – certainly not myself, nor my wife or kids, and probably not any of my friends or colleagues. But nevertheless, when we walk into a retail establishment we attain perfection, and whatever we say or do is correct. If you want to carry this to an extreme, (and by the way, all customers know this axiom and love to take advantage of it) what if a customer feels that it’s their prerogative to walk out of your store with a free bag of groceries? Are they right? Based on what most stores claim, the answer is yes. And how about when a customer is petulant, unreasonable, and angry with one of your employees – are they correct? Should your staff simply face the abuse, just for showing up at the scene and trying to help?

More and more companies are beginning to realize that the theory that “the customer is always right” can actually lead to poor customer service. While you may believe that it empowers the customer, it can, at times, demean and belittle your employees – those who devote their time and loyalty to the company. In the end, the axiom implies that we will always choose the sale over the integrity of an interaction. In the organic and natural foods industry, our businesses reflect our principles. We believe in good health for both people and the environment. Shouldn’t one of our principles also be that we believe in the integrity of human interaction? In other words, no customer should ever have the opportunity to interact with someone from your store or business in a way that does not show respect for that person. A customer can complain about a product or situation (and it may well be a very legitimate complaint) without disrespecting the person that is handling their complaint.

Even if the customer is right, it still does not give them the green light to treat someone on your staff with any level of disrespect. There’s a wonderful story involving Herb Kelleher, the CEO of Southwest Airlines that perfectly describes what I am trying to say:

A 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 relation’s 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.’”

Southwest Airlines is a model for superb customer service, and they also have very happy and engaged employees. So perhaps we need a new axiom – something along the lines of “if your employees are happy and know that they have your support, they will naturally provide superb customer service.” You won’t have to teach them about the importance of customer service. If they are happy in their jobs, if they feel like the company supports and respects them, they will naturally interact with customers in a way that expresses this level of trust and happiness. Your level of customer service will actually exceed anything you could have possibly imagined.

It just makes sense. If you treat people well and they understand that they will never have to sacrifice their integrity for “the sale”, then whatever sale is missed because of that . . . will actually not be missed at all. After September 11, 2001, it’s been a struggle for most airlines. Southwest is the only airline that has been profitable each year since then. If you ask them what their secret is, they would tell you it’s no secret at all. They would most likely say that their success is based on the opposite of what most companies believe : that the customer is not always right… or said another way, it’s because they truly value their employees. And if you were to ask Southwest customers how they feel . . . people are in love with this airline. And what they love most about it is the people who work there and how well they’re treated on their flights. This model really does work.

Listen to your customers, take care of their needs, even change your business model based on their feedback, and definitely provide them with what they want – but it should never be necessary to have one of your employees feel humiliated or disrespected in order for a customer to feel OK. The customer is not always right!