Is the customer always right?

By Adam Blanch

The idea that the customer is always right is responsible for the success of numerous businesses.

So is the customer always right? Heck no, but don't tell them that. The idea that the customer is always right has transcended time and is responsible for the success of numerous businesses, including the Ritz Hotel chain and Wanamaker's department stores, which revolutionised retail in the early 1800s. The phrase is most commonly attributed to Marshall Field, an American retailer who coined the principle 'give them what they want'.

The truth is that customers can often be wrong about the fair value of a product, the terms and conditions, their expectations of service, whose fault it is that the product isn't working or isn't what they wanted, and a dozen other things. Added to that the fact that a small percentage of customers are simply dishonest and will try to use a customer service policy to their own advantage.

Dealing with customers that are mistaken, ill-informed and dishonest can be extremely frustrating. However, the great majority of customers believe that they are right and will argue for their 'rightness' even beyond the point when they have realised they are wrong. Human beings don't like being wrong, and a business that puts them in a situation where they have to be is a business shoving customers towards the competition.

The reality is that most customers do not want to complain - they simply want what they thought they paid for. Customers often feel powerless when it comes to dealing with policies, bureaucracies and institutions. By the time they get around to actually complaining they have had to overcome their fears of being rejected, denied, accused and attacked - so they are often upset, angry and heading down the path to irrational. A business that removes those fears by offering money-back guarantees, 'customer is right' service policies and calm concern will avoid most problems.

A business that successfully responds to a customer's complaint will also keep that person as a customer and potentially turn them into an ambassador. We love to complain about bad service, but we also love to tell people about the great service we receive. It's just human nature to tell our friends where they can get what they want, and a word-of-mouth referral from someone who is raving about your business is worth its weight in gold.

Most of the time it doesn't matter if the customer is right or not - it only matters what you stand to lose by them feeling wrong. The cost of a return, repair, discount or apology is usually far outweighed by the opportunity to gain a loyal customer and improve your reputation in the market. Being willing to be in the wrong is the key to successful customer service.


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