Is the Customer Always Right?

A fascinating article from Alexander Kjerulf tackles the ill-conceived idea that “The customer is always right.” Mr. Kjerulf, the best-selling author of Happy Hour is 9 to 5, offers five reasons why it is wrong to always side with customers. The common thread shared by all of his points is that by refusing to bow to the demands of unreasonable customers, you will actually improve your business and your customer service.

The article begins with the assertion that siding with unruly customers, rather than your employees, is bad for morale. To illustrate this point, the author quotes from Gordon Bethune’s book, From Worst to First, which details the CEO’s successful strategies for running Continental Airlines.

“When we run into customers that we can’t reel back in, our loyalty is with our employees. They have to put up with this stuff every day. Just because you buy a ticket does not give you the right to abuse our employees. We run more than 3 million people through our books every month. One or two of those people are going to be unreasonable, demanding jerks. When it’s a choice between supporting your employees, who work with you every day and make your product what it is, or some irate jerk who demands a free ticket to Paris because you ran out of peanuts, whose side are you going to be on?

You can’t treat your employees like serfs. You have to value them. If they think that you won’t support them when a customer is out of line, even the smallest problem can cause resentment.”

Mr. Bethune maintains that evaluating each situation individually and siding with employees when they are right, establishes an environment of high morale and trust. His impressive results with Continental would appear to validate this idea.

The article proceeds to identify another problem with “The customer is always right,” which is that it gives unfair advantage to rude and aggressive customers. Mr. Kjerulf points out that if you adhere to “The customer is always right,” abusive customers can demand anything they want and technically be right. This is a terrible position to put your employees in. It’s also counterintuitive, as Mr. Kjerulf points out, because, “it means that abusive people get better treatment and conditions than nice people…It makes much more sense to be nice to the nice customers to keep them coming back.”

Mr. Kjerulf goes on to refute the mentality of “the more customers the better.” He explains that while this is usually true, there are some customers who are “quite simply bad for business.” He relates the story of a Danish IT company who cancelled a customer’s contract after the customer mistreated one of their service technicians. They may have lost a contract, but they made the right decision by protecting their employee and refusing to do business with someone who mistreated them.

According to the article, companies who always side with the customer will actually suffer from poorer customer service. This is because if the customer is always right, the employee is always wrong in the cases where there is a disagreement. Employees treated in this way receive a clear message that they aren’t valued, don’t deserve the customers’ respect and must put up with abuse. Employees who have accepted this fate won’t care about customer service. According to Mr. Kjerulf, the best you could hope for from this type of demoralized employee would be superficiality and “fake good service.”

The conclusion of the article states that, “some customers are just plain wrong, that businesses are better off without them, and that managers siding with unreasonable customers over employees is a very bad idea, that results in worse customer service.” Putting employees first boosts morale and confirms to them that you trust and respect them. It creates a healthy work environment where they’ll respond by putting the customer first, which is a perfect way to improve your business all around.

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