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The Customer Is Not Always Right

Even if you've never worked in customer service, you've definitely heard that the customer was always right. Companies have built entire service strategies around this principle. Some even follow it blindly, no matter how objectively not right the customer may be.

And while there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to please every customer, it is unrealistic at best. In addition to that, this mantra many businesses stick to as law has been shortened over time, losing its original meaning.

The customer is always right in matters of taste

What Harry Selfridge was actually trying to say is that customers are right about what they like and dislike. Let's say you own a store. A customer walks in wanting to buy shoes. You offer them a pair and they say it's ugly.

In this case, the customer is right not to buy the pair of shoes you offered because they'll be the person owning it. Similarly, you could stock up on blue wedding dresses. But if your customers only want to buy white, then they are right and white is the best color for a wedding dress.

This highlights the fundamental principle of customer-centricity in business. Listening to and fulfilling the needs of your customers is essential for long-term success. 

However, it's not about blindly giving into unreasonable customer requests. It's about adapting and responding to their preferences, rather than imposing your own beliefs or tastes onto them.

How come we've lost the most important part of the saying over time?

The answer to this question lies in linguistics. Since language is how we communicate, it's often also the main reason for misunderstandings.

Language evolves to keep up with new concepts in the world around us. Words fall out of usage, new ones come in. Phrases and sayings are shortened or taken out of their original context.

If we take a look at linguistic research, there are two main reasons why this happens:

  1. The economy of language, meaning people look for efficiency in communication. This means phrases get shortened over time and, as a result, lose nuance and lack full context. 
  2. The principle of least effort, meaning people will choose the easiest way to express themselves. By doing this, we sacrifice clarity and precision for convenience, resulting in omission of details or context.

When it comes to sayings and context, "the customer is always right" is not the only victim of language economy. For the sake of showing you how it works, here are a few more popular sayings that completely change meaning in their full context:

  • Great minds think alike (but fools seldom differ)
  • The early bird catches the worm (but the second mouse gets the cheese)
  • Jack of all trades, master of none (though oftentimes better than master of one)

Nobody is right 100% of the time

And that includes customers. Yes, happy customers are loyal customers. Yes, customer satisfaction is the driving force behind a successful business. But prioritizing customer satisfaction at all costs leads to negative consequences.

For example, imagine a restaurant that bends over backwards to accommodate every customer's dietary preferences.  While it may initially please the customer, it also strains the kitchen staff and results in longer wait times for other customers. Over time, this defeats the whole point of having a menu and confuses customers.

Or, imagine being an online retailer offering free returns, no questions asked. While this policy may increase customer satisfaction in the short term, it can also attract habitual returners. The higher the number of people who exploit the system, the higher the operational costs. Eventually, treating every customer like they're right no matter what leads to reduced profitability.

5 types of customers who are definitely not right

Determining whether a customer is right or not usually calls for a case-by-case assessment. That said, there are five types of customers that you shouldn't cave to.

1. The unreasonable customer

The unreasonable customer will walk into a shoe store, take a look at what's on offer, and ask if the pair comes in forest green. When told that the store only sells what's on display, they'll demand you produce a pair in forest green.

You'll explain again that you don't have forest green in inventory. As a matter of fact, the manufacturer doesn't even produce this model in forest green. The unreasonable customer doesn't believe you and insists that you go check in the back.

When you finally manage to convince them that you don't have forest green, you're exhausted, and they're angry. They either walk out of the store threatening to leave a bad review or they turn into the next type of customer on the list.

2. The abusive customer

The abusive customer often resorts to yelling and screaming to get their way - probably because it worked sometime in the past. They'll ask for a table at a visibly busy restaurant without a reservation and get annoyed for waiting a few minutes to be seated.

Once they've ordered, their patience runs thinner as the minutes go by. They're visibly frustrated, tapping their fingers on the table, barking at the waiter and demanding to know where their food is.

The waiter apologizes for the delay and explains that the kitchen is swamped with a high volume of orders. The abusive customer takes it personally and unloads all their frustration on the waiter.

They scream, wave their fists around, dish out insults, and demand to speak to the manager. Once the manager gets there, they're also greeted with a barrage of insults and demands.

3. The unjustified refund customer

The customer bought a mixer from your store a few months ago. They enter the store and demand a refund because the product is no longer functional.

Soon enough, you realize there's damage to the product that couldn't have been caused with proper use. You ask the customer what happened, but they insist they've used the product properly. 

Upon detailed inspection, it's obvious the customer ignored the  instruction manual completely. The damage is due to improper appliance usage, making the customer inelligible for a refund.

Confronted with evidence, the unjustified refund customer still insists they've done nothing wrong. However, the warranty clearly states that misuse is not covered, so you stick to your policy.

4. The entitled customer

The entitled customer is a firm believer in "the customer is always right". They believe it's the only rule that applies to them, regardless of any business policies you may have.

They'll enter your store and want to return an item. In addition to not having a receipt, they've also missed the return window. However, they don't care - they're the customer, so they have to be right.

No matter how many times you try to explain the store policy, they insist on a return. They're adamant, and you start considering giving in just so you don't have to deal with them anymore.

5. The false claim customer

An obviously frustrated customer contacts support. They claim their laptop arrived damaged and demand a replacement or a refund. You review the order details and shipping records and see the delivery happened just the day before.

You ask the customer for more information about the damage, but their description is vague. Once you press for more detail, you notice inconsistencies in the story. 

Suspecting that something's not right, you ask for more information, but the customer becomes defensive. They seem hesitant, ultimately admitting they dropped the laptop while unboxing it. 

Despite the customer's attempt at a false claim, you handle the situation professionally. You let the customer know what their options are and direct them to the appropriate channels for addressing the damage.

Sometimes you just have to say no

Being dedicated to great customer service is just as important as knowing when to draw the line. Accommodating unreasonable demands and tolerating entitled or abusive behavior doesn't only undermine your integrity.

It also shows your employees their wellbeing comes second, no matter how badly a customer treats them. Acknowledging that the customer is not always right helps keep the balance between customer and employee satisfaction. Both are key ingredients for the success of your business.

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Patricija Šobak's profile image
Patricija Šobak puts her talent in spotting questionable grammar and shady syntax to good use by writing about various business-related topics. Besides advocating the use of the Oxford comma, she also likes coffee, dogs, and video games. People find her ability to name classic rock songs only from the intro both shocking and impressive.