Editor's Note: When the Customer Isn’t Always Right

Sept. 9, 2014
Keeping your employees happy and productive may mean going away from the tried-and-true

Adages that endure from generation to generation can stand the test of time because they are correct and authentic. These are tried-and-true sayings like “the early bird catches the worm” or “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” — you get the picture. 

For people in sales — whether it is retail, door-to-door, services, you name it — “the customer is always right.” The proverb can be traced back to 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge's department store in London. Retail pioneer Marshall Field used the phrase as the basis for his Chicago empire, and also coined the phrase, "Give the lady what she wants.” Field and others helped do away with the prevailing “buyer beware” mentality to usher in an age of refunds, consistent pricing and other customer-facing benefits that endure to this day.

But according to Alexander Kjerulf, an expert on workplace happiness and the author of Happy Hour is 9 to 5: How to love your job, love your life and kick butt at work, the old phrase the customer is always right is just plain wrong. In his blog, The Chief Happiness Officer, Kjerulf writes about Southwest Airlines co-founder and former CEO Herb Kelleher, who, when faced with a frequent flier’s constant written complaints, finally replied with the simple line: “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.

Kjerulf goes on to outline four reasons why “the customer is always right” is past its prime. Here’s a quick summary (please read the full post and the rest of his blog at www.positivesharing.com):

1. It makes employees unhappy. The “always right” maxim squarely favors the customer, which is a bad idea, because, as former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune wrote in his book, it causes resentment among employees.

2. It gives abrasive customers an unfair advantage. Abusive customers can demand just about anything because they are right by definition of the adage. That means that abusive people get better treatment and conditions than the nice ones.

3. Some customers are bad for business. Kjerulf tells of a Danish company that dropped a customer who treated a service technician especially rudely: “Note that it was not even a matter of a financial calculation — not a question of whether the company would make or lose money on that customer in the long run,” he writes. “It was a simple matter of respect and dignity and of treating their employees right.”

4. It results in worse customer service: When a company and management consistently side with customers instead of with employees, it sends a clear message that: Employees are not valued; Treating employees fairly is not important; Employees have no right to respect from customers; and employees have to put up with everything from customers. “When this attitude prevails, employees stop caring about service,” he writes. “At that point, the best customers can hope for is fake good service. You know the kind I mean: courteous on the surface only.”

Still, it is difficult for today’s business owner to embrace this concept. In the duck-and-cover marketplace of web-based services — a world that is becoming more familiar to security dealers and integrators — today’s dissatisfied customer doesn’t just show up demanding a refund. Instead, they take to the online airwaves, posting negative and sometimes downright malicious reviews that your prospects and current customers can read and access with a couple of clicks.

It is a newfound danger of doing business in a social media-based society; however, business owners may be well-served to try and see beyond the boat-rockers. Of course, it is a delicate balancing act, but perhaps it is time to rethink the days of the customer is always right.

About the Author

Paul Rothman | Editor-in-Chief/Security Business

Paul Rothman is Editor-in-Chief of Security Business magazine. Email him your comments and questions at [email protected]. Access the current issue, full archives and apply for a free subscription at www.securitybusinessmag.com.