Share this content
How do we move on from the motto 'the customer is always right'

Is it time to move on from 'the customer is always right'?


Businesses have lived by Harry Gordon Selfridge's famous customer service motto for over 100 years. Now is the time to debate whether we should step away from this most enduring of mantras. 

16th Feb 2022
Share this content

Ever since it was first coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge in the early 20th century, ‘the customer is always right’ is a motto that has become etched into universal customer service scripture. It’s a philosophical approach by which many businesses declare their employees must abide.

In recent years, however, the term has become weaponised. As coronavirus broke out, so did the rage of the average consumer. A customer’s perceived position as the master and the customer service employee as the servant was laid out for all to see.

In MyCustomer’s August 2021 article ‘Are your customers awful – and what should you do if they are?’, some stark statistics revealed themselves: The UK’s largest grocery chain Co-Op, for instance, reported 133 cases of abuse by customers in just one day during lockdown. The situation quickly got so bad that new research by USDAW found that one in six retail employees were suffering abuse on a daily basis. 

USDAW found that 61% of employees working in retail reported verbal abuse during the pandemic with a third threatened by customers, while The British Retail Consortium reported that threats to cough and spit at staff became a regular feature of being a key worker.

In 2021, there were 5,779 reports of unruly passengers on planes in the US alone, more than 4,000 of them related to mask mandates, the Federal Aviation Administration reported.

While an increase in such incidents is not to be taken lightly, arguably of greater concern was the behavioural motivation that led to these flashpoints occurring in the first point. Yes, COVID was an aggravator, but as The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull explains in an exposé of American consumers titled ‘American shoppers are a nightmare’, the issues are rooted in something far deeper than simply their association with the pandemic:   

"This is not a feature of a healthy society. Even before the pandemic pushed things to further extremes, the primacy of consumer identity made customer service interactions particularly conflagratory. Being corrected by a salesperson, forgotten by a bartender, or brushed off by a flight attendant isn’t just an annoyance - for many people, it is an existential threat to their self-understanding.

“The notion that at the restaurant, you’re better than the waiters, it becomes part of the restaurant experience and also part of how some patrons understand their place in the world. Compounding this sense of superiority is the fact that so many service workers are from historically marginalised groups - the workforce is disproportionately non-white and female."

This was perfectly illustrated by Anna Luna, a New York deli worker interviewed for a January 2022 article about customer behaviour in the New York Times: “Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants? You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese’.”

Given these concerns and the sharp increase in relating issues, a vital question now must be asked – if the blanket assessment that ‘the customer is always right’ is inflating consumer status in an unhealthy way, do we now need to move on from the use of this well-worn phrase? If so, what does an alternative to this narrative look like?

The customer is occasionally wrong

Consumer expectations have risen dramatically during the course of the pandemic. Approximately 75% of customers will stop doing business with a company after they’ve had a negative experience with them. A recent study by CMO Council stated that 65% of consumers felt digital experiences were not meeting their expectations. 42% of consumers say a ‘seamless’ experience across all devices and channels is a “top expectation” when interacting with a brand.

Conversely, complaint numbers are also at a record high, with the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) publishing findings from its latest UK Customer Service Index (UKCSI) which states a record 13% of all adults made a complaint to a company in 2021 in the UK.

“I think customers have far more power now,” says Mark Hillary, CX & technology analyst, writer and host of CX Files. “Look at banking and compare the choice of retail bank and banking services today compared to a decade ago. The combination of apps, open banking and fintech has led to many new customer-centric services – meaning anyone following the old rules will just be history soon.

“So in general, it still applies that the customer is mostly right. But I also I think that in a world where almost half of items ordered via ecommerce are hard-to-process returns it does pay to just introduce some intelligence into this assumption. Is the same customer always returning items, for example? Can we really afford to apply the ‘customer is always right’ to those particular customers?”

Indeed, ‘the customer is always right’ is becoming an increasingly exploited term: a quarter of all consumers now return between 5% and 15% of the items they buy online, highlighting a cohort of ‘repeat returners’ currently fuelled into taking advantage of the competitive, customer-appeasing battleground of ecommerce policy. In the UK, ‘serial complaining’ has become a celebrated side hustle for some, while the public airing of grievances with brands on social media has led to a cottage industry of consumers calling out and demanding forgiveness and compensation from businesses for a plethora of perceived sins. 

However, brands have pushed back. Research from Barclaycard suggests 20% of retailers plan to implement stricter returns policies. In social media, brands such as Lush have rallied against the tirade of abuse and requests by shutting down their social profiles altogether. Respected customer experience commentator Colin Shaw says it is not unreasonable for brands to ‘fire’ their customers if the financial or behavioural burden of their custom has become too great.

Customers might not always be right, but the art of delivering great customer experience is to make people feel that they have been heard and their issue is being taken seriously

Yet, as Charlotte Monk-Chipman of ReBound Returns counters, not all repeat returners are bad customers: “Someone who buys a lot and returns a lot is not necessarily a bad shopper,” she says. “There are different types of returner-personas”. And, for many, serial complainers are consumer champions and the rising customer expectations are ensuring the dark days of businesses being able to treat their customers with contempt remain a thing of the past.    

“There is no excuse for a customer to behave unreasonably and brands shouldn’t be afraid to stand their ground if they identify such behaviour,” says Jonathan Winchester, founder & chief executive of insight6. “But too often frustrations arise when customers feel there is no appropriate way to give their feedback, they are not being listened to, or their feedback is not being responded to. Understanding your customer journey and mapping out scenarios can really help employees understand the best way to deal with potential issues before they escalate.

“Customers might not always be right, but the art of delivering great customer experience is to make people feel that they have been heard and their issue is being taken seriously. You may conclude that they are wrong, and that is ok, as long as you have taken steps to manage the issue professionally and given clear and concise feedback to support your decision.”

Reconfiguring stereotypes  

The response to the pandemic for many brands has been digital transformation. In a study of 900 C-suite executives and senior managers at businesses around the world, conducted by McKinsey & Company, it was revealed that businesses spent more on digital investments than on any other business continuity measures during the pandemic.

Yet, as the recent Consumer Rage Study highlights, the shift to digital has done little to placate increasingly frustrated customers or protect employees from the subsequent wrath, despite many digital transformations claiming to be designed to improve the employee experience as well as the customer experience.   

Ultimately it will come down to the brand deciding on what is right for the culture of their organisation

 “We are seeing a lot of respect for brands that defend their employees, but in some cases a level of anger from customers is justified,” says Hillary. “Where help is very difficult to access or there are obvious deflection techniques in place by the brands, then it’s no surprise that customers are annoyed when they finally do get some help.

“Masks on planes is a good example, or masks inside shops. England, for instance, is now largely removing mask requirements, yet many retailers want their customers to continue using them. It’s very hard to expect employees to police this. Ultimately it will come down to the brand deciding on what is right for the culture of their organisation. If a retailer wants to continue to urge caution then they need to be prepared to eject customers that do not agree – but if they value the business more than their standards then it becomes an impossible situation.”

And as Winchester adds: “Having guidelines as to what is acceptable behaviour for both employees and customers should be made clear, but they should define strategies to manage or diffuse specific scenarios relevant to their industry or customer. Most employers we work with do this well; we advise training around body language, set phrases and calming techniques, which can be practised through role play. For example, inviting someone to take a seat immediately calms a situation.”

Training employees on the new normal of customer expectations is critical, but there’s also the wider requirement – as highlighted in Amanda Mull’s aforementioned expose piece in The Atlantic – about changing societal opinion and stereotype when it comes to the relationship between customer and customer service representative.

In this respect, a recent Harvard Business Review article sheds some light on how this might be achieved, giving reference to how ethnographics are helping to resolve the bad image truck drivers have in India, which is hampering the industry from recruiting the number of people it needs, despite huge unemployment issues across the country.

 “No villager wanted a son to become a truck driver or a daughter to marry one… the root cause of the trucker shortage is that truck drivers are on the road for long stretches, away from home, and that encourages bad habits,” explained the author, Professor Sunil Gupta, who proceeded to outline that the only way to encourage a change in public perception was to change the root cause of the behaviour deemed inappropriate – long journeys. By creating ‘relay’ journeys for groups of drivers rather than demanding they do journeys in their entireties, behaviour was being transformed and with it public perception of those working in the industry.  

Customer service is in a similar bind, with far too many people now seeing the relationship between customer and service representative as one of status and subordination. Here the equivalent for the sevice sector, one could argue, is to match brands' largescale digital transformation projects with an increase in investment in soft skills and EQ training for employees, thus creating cultures built on empathy – on both sides of the customer-brand relationship.

“Empathy is crucial to delivering great CX, and great CX can ensure empathy is felt on both sides,” says Jonathan Winchester. “A brand can deliver empathy by making it easy for a customer to voice that they are unhappy and by training, and giving staff authority to take action upon that feedback. Even if the action does not give the customer what they wanted, as long as they feel the employee has fairly investigated the issue and delivered a transparent response as to why they can't meet the request, empathy is felt on both sides.”

Research from Genesys concludes that being an empathetic business is the new competitive battleground, having found a direct link between customer satisfaction levels and how empathetic a customer service interaction has been.  

However, in the long-term, Mark Hillary believes that there is one key metric that will determine how brands approach the 'customer is always right' dilemma:

“I think we may need to think beyond immediate empathy. It's almost impossible to simply focus on the individual customer interaction. A customer might be buying your products for 40 or 50 years - that’s the type of focus that brands need to think about if they want to create a better sense of empathy. It’s like the old Domino’s example where the management asked Domino’s pizza employees to imagine customers with a $10,000 bill taped to their forehead - that’s the value of each customer over time so be empathetic about their request - even if it seems like a pain in the short-term.”




Replies (6)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

By Jim Barnes
17th Feb 2022 19:28

I have long argued that the more correct and strategically valuable phrase is "the customer is OFTEN right", not because customers are often wrong or difficult or obstreperous -which they are - but because they often don't know how to make the right decision or the decision that is in their best interest. This is particularly the case when customers are making major purchase decisions without the benefit of experience. This often creates a scenario where the business can deliver an impressive customer experience by providing solid advice that will guide the customer in the right direction. Because the customer is inexperienced or the purchase is a complex one, the service provider can offer advice based on years of experience that will enable the customer to avoid making a decision he or she will regret.

Thanks (3)
Replying to Jim Barnes:
Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
18th Feb 2022 09:46

Thanks Jim. An extremely valid point. There are so many transactions where a business's product/ service expertise can be put at risk by customers taking the stance of 'always being right'. I guess that's where a business's authority and trust in the market is tested most rigorously.

Thanks (0)
By Ron Kaufman
18th Feb 2022 04:39

Hi Chris, Thank you for another very well written article, and for bringing so many related themes together under this umbrella. Of course the customer is not always right about the facts or the situation (and at times may exaggerate or even lie). But the customer is "always right" about whatever it is they truly value - and acknowledging this can go a long way in conveying empathy, creating connection, and putting customer and service provider "on the same side". This short video makes the point"

Thanks (2)
Replying to [email protected]:
Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
18th Feb 2022 09:55

Thanks Ron. I think Mark Hillary's comment at the end of the article about ensuring all staff understand the lifetime value of a customer aligns with the points you've made. To me, all of this is pointing towards the need to better train, empower and incentivise customer-facing staff.

Thanks (1)
Aki Kalliatakis Photo
By aki.kalliatakis1
19th Feb 2022 18:47

Loved this article, Chris, and both Jim Barnes and Ron Kaufman made excellent points. Bottom line for me is as follows: It used to be true that customers would figuratively queue up outside our doors keen to do business with us. Now the reverse is true: we are outside their doors begging them to buy something. It all comes down to one simple fact. In most industries, we need them more than they need us. I think it was Phil Forrest who said that the customers are not always right, but they are always in the right.

Thanks (2)
Replying to aki.kalliatakis1:
Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
22nd Feb 2022 08:45

Thanks Aki. I love the analogy you've made of things being in reversed. That's exactly why expectations continue to heighten, and why customer experience continues to grow in importance.

Thanks (0)