Why Believing the Customer Is Always Right Is Sometimes Wrong

The seemingly innocuous notion that the customer is always right can prove harmful to a business, especially new businesses and startups that are just getting off the ground. The phrase, originally coined in 1909 by Selfridge’s department store in London, is often touted both by people-pleasing marketers and by customers who feel entitled to more than they pay for. In fact, not only can customers actually be wrong – to err is human, after all – but some of them can be downright impossible for a business and its employees to please.

Importance of Setting Expectations

While having more customers is generally a good thing, some customers are downright bad for business. As with most relationships, customers have as many obligations to uphold as they have rights to exercise. They need to know both what is being promised to them from a business or service, as well as what they have to do in return for receiving the value of said promise.

Anyone who’s worked even a single day in customer service is familiar with the type of customers who, even when proven wrong, maintain their initial point and demand some form of satisfaction. Clearly communicated boundaries —laid down at the start of a relationship — effectively prevents many avoidable disputes by making sure every party involved in a business transaction knows what to expect.

Pitfalls of Trying to Please Everyone

customer serviceIf your customer isn’t happy after you’ve tried your best to resolve the dispute, it’s time to move on and focus on other, more reasonable clientele. Trying to satisfy an unruly customer can make you lose sight of all the positive attributes and the mission of your business. Sometimes you essentially have to  “fire” the customer. By marrying yourself to the adage that the customer is always right, you risk squandering your limited resources on customers who are never going to be satisfied.

Even worse than the waste of trying to win a permanently unhappy customer is the precedent set by such behavior that making erratic customers feel as if their every wish is your company’s only mission. In fact, respect is never so one-sided. The notion that the customer is always right gives a troublesome customer an excuse to be unduly demanding or abusive since it presupposes he’s right by definition. It also means that abusive customers get more attention and better terms than more reasonable customers, which sets up a perverse incentive for your clientele to become increasingly hostile over time.

Instead of wasting your resources, focus on retaining good customers who are willing to engage in a reasonable dialogue with you and your staff. This attitude is more likely to make them into loyal brand ambassadors later on.

Putting a Happy Staff Above a Happy Customer

Don’t neglect your staff in all of this. Customer satisfaction is generally far higher for businesses that train and empower frontline employees to handle disputes right away. This makes a trained and motivated team all the more important.

If you side with customers every time they make unreasonable demands in hopes of raising their satisfaction, it sets up a problematic dynamic and shows your employees that you do not consider them a valuable part of your company. It also shows them they have no right to demand respect and have to put up with everything that even the most unreasonable customers throw their way.

According to Ravi Tangri, author of “Stress Costs, Stress Cures: How to Recover Productivity Lost to Stress,” treating your employees well has very concrete benefits: “Workers with high levels of perceived control are not as likely to report high levels of conflict or interference between work and their family lives. The more control an employee feels over his own health and over things that happen to him at work, the less likely he is to report absences totaling six days or more in the previous year.”

Prove to your employees that you respect their judgment and opinions. Put your staff first, and they in turn are motivated to put your business first.

You – Not Your Customers – Run Your Business

Most customers are understandably preoccupied with their own needs. They do not care that you’re trying to employ a new strategy or break into a new market that may revolutionize the industry. Most customers operate on far simpler terms. They want to know what they are getting out of their relationship with your business, what it will cost and how soon they can have it.

Keep in mind the apocryphal quote by Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a better horse.” Running a good business means uncovering what customers really need instead of what they say they want. To believe that the customer is right regardless of circumstances is to settle for spoiling the customers instead of providing what they truly need: honest customer service.