The Customer Is Not Always Right — Now What?

An article by Bruce Mohl in yesterday’s Sunday Boston Globe called “In Some Cases, The Customer Is Not Right” caught my eye. Here’s how it starts:

Consumers often criticize companies for poor service, poor workmanship, or just being sleazy. But despite conventional wisdom, the customer isn’t always right. Sometimes the consumer is right, sometimes the company is right, and sometimes the answer falls somewhere in between.

My take: I agree. Customer interactions aren’t always black-and-white. But now that we’ve dispelled “the customer is always right” adage, firms need a new way to think about how they should treat customers. So here are 5 principles to use in place of “the customer is always right:”

  1. “Right” is in the eyes of the beholder
    Enforcing a policy that’s in tiny print on the back of a sales slip may be legally correct, but that doesn’t make it “right.”
  2. It costs less to solve a problem than you think.
    Firms build models to figure out how much they’re willing to spend to solve a customer’s problem. But these calculations typically do not factor in the downside associated with bad word of mouth and the upside associated with good word of mouth.
  3. The best resolution is a quick one.
    If you’re going to fix a problem, you’ll get the most goodwill by doing it right away. Customer appreciate the pro-activeness and they don’t have to suffer through a period of anxiety.
  4. Not all customers are equal
    Don’t use the same rules for treating your most profitable customers that you apply to your less desirable ones.
  5. The customer is more often right than wrong
    If there’s any doubt; treat them like they’re right.

The bottom line: Right or wrong, you’ve got to love your customers.

Written by 

I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey.

Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum.

My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers.

I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

12 thoughts on “The Customer Is Not Always Right — Now What?”

  1. I’m sorry, but I totally disagree with your principles. I work in customer service and the customer, more often than not, is wrong. When a customer blows up on you, in front of a whole line of other customers, they are not right. Or how about the customer that doesn’t like the high gas prices and drives off. Or the customer who gets in the face of a seventeen year old worker in the men’s bathroom while she is cleaning, not to mention there is a sign posted that the restrooms are closed for that specific reason. And then that same customer rudely comes out of the restroom, after he has made her stop doing her job and leave, and starts cursing her out and calling her names in front of the whole store. Let me guess? You are going to say that customer is right? Wrong. If you want employees to start giving better service and kissing the customer’s ass, then businesses need to start paying them a whole lot more. I don’t get paid enough to take the brute of a person’s bad day when I am just trying to do my own job correctly.

  2. Jenny: Thanks for your comment. I actually agree with the fact that the customer is NOT always right. And it sounds like you’ve run into a lot of those wrong ones. But, I would never recommend to companies that they assume that the customer “more of than not, is wrong.”

  3. What do you do with the customer who repeatedly returns worn merchandise and wants their hands held during the whole selling process? A very small amount of my customers cost my business money and the employees their sanity. Their comes a point when you have to cut off the relationship with a bad customer.

  4. You obviously haven’t worked at any kind of minimum wage job. People are ignorent from the get go… i work in fast food, half the time people don’t even read our menu and they ask for things we don’t have. or they’re very vague and when i politely ask them to be more specific they get upset with me. I feel that the prices are reasonable where i work but i constantly have people order the most expensive things on our menu and complain to me about the price even though there are lower cost items that they could have purchased AND i have absolutely no say on our prices. I have had people throw things at me, yell at me, use very innapropriate language towards me, and one person very nearly spit on me. I am always polite and while i can get frustrated with the general publics stupidity, i rarely show it. Are you telling me that as a person who makes less than $10 an hour i deserve to be treated that way. Honestly if my managers want me to give better service maybe they should side with me instead of the guy who ordered one thing and comes back into the store saying he ordered a more expensive item and that the “stupid” girl in drive thru doesn’t know what she’s doing. Honestly those are some of my worst experiences… on the whole i think my job is ok. I like the people i work with and generally our customers are nice or reasonable and those customers get the best service from me. The irate angry ones… i don’t serve… that is why the managers get paid the big bucks and not myself.

    1. Sally: I agree that customers are NOT always right; that was the premise of the post. But I don’t think that employees should assume that customers are ALWAYS WRONG either. Hopefully your managers can do a better job of recognizing when customers are being unreasonable.

  5. Interesting little bit here. After being in the service industry, namely the restaurant business, for more than 10 years, I can safely say that most, if not all, of your principles hold truth. I particularly agree with numbers 2 and 3. Coupled together, you can usually get out of sticky situations quickly and with the least amount of damage.

    It’s a real shame that the world has undesirable customers. In a world where the mass majority have to pay bills and simply get by in life, why are there so many ill-mannered people out there? It makes you wonder if they’re simply having a bad day or if they have an agenda. We all have similar struggles and obstacles in our lives; why add more fuel for the fire?

    However, I do have a question for you. What about the customers that intentionally deceive employees just to skimp out on a business deal, product, etc?

    1. Honest Worker (I feel like I’m a syndicated self-help columnist): Thanks for the comment. Most companies are going to run into a few “bad” customers. If you can spot them (use whatever data or analysis you have available), then they should be asked to leave as quickly, quietly, and uneventfully as possible.

  6. Your blog post brings up an IMPORTANT point.

    You state that a dissatisfied customer could cause you a lot of grief. That’s very true. And that’s why you should be selective when accepting somebody to be your customer.

    A “demented” customer could easily be demented in an “I’m impossible to please” way and could also be demented enough to post complaints on every industry forum on the Web.

    1. Geoffrey: Companies should absolutely think about the customers they want (and don’t want) to have. Often times, you don’t know a customer is a bad one until they start to interact wit you. Thanks for commenting.

  7. I agree to totally disagree with the principles. Working in customer service and the customer, more often than not, is wrong unfortunately that is the case and you do get a lot of out of hand customers that are not warranted.

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