Here's Why "The Customer is Always Right" is Hurting Your Customer Service

Kindra Cooper

the customer is always right

Any frontline service worker knows anecdotally that the customer isn’t always right, but in the age of the “empowered customer” who can switch to a competitor after comparison-shopping on Yelp or garner thousands of shares for roasting your brand on Twitter, brands are conflicted over this dated adage.

The notion that management will side with the customer by default instead of drawing the line when a customer is unreasonable pits management and customers against employees, and the customer always wins.

It implies a lack of trust in an employee’s ability to mediate conflict and make commonsense judgments, turning a customer service job into a teeth-gritting experience instead of one human helping another.

Last month, Chipotle promptly fired a manager at a St. Paul, Minnesota chain after she refused to serve a group of young black men, alleging they had repeatedly left without paying. After the incident went viral, Twitter users discovered that the leader of the group, Masud Ali, had posted numerous tweets boasting about dining and dashing at various local restaurants, and the manager was rehired.

In this case, Chipotle sided immediately with the customer, likely for fear of backlash on Twitter for what appeared to be a racist run-in, instead of assessing the situation from both sides before taking action.

If your customers are dissatisfied, take a close look at your product

When a customer calls with a complaint, they’re unhappy with the product. The job of a frontline agent is to diffuse the situation and offer a solution, but they can’t rectify the problem if the product is essentially defective or deficient, if you don’t provide resources and policies that empower the agent to fix the issue, or if the business can’t deliver on its promises thereafter.  

One Singapore-based telecommunications company went as far as threatening to fire employees who displeased customers. A telco union swooped in to defend workers after Singtel Optus CEO Allen Lew said he would terminate them for dissatisfying customers, who were calling to complain about misleading billing charges and chronic underinvestment in the Optus Network.

“At Optus there is only one boss: not me, the customer.” - Allen Lew, CEO of Optus

Lew even encouraged employees to report colleagues who were believed to have upset customers through the telco’s independently run whistleblower hotline, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. The beleaguered telco ranked second-highest regionally for customer complaints, fielding 40,665 of them this year.

Putting the onus of customer dissatisfaction entirely on employees blinded management to the fact that customers were unhappy with the product itself, rather than an issue of service delivery.

Our research consistently shows that customers don’t expect above-and-beyond service like personalization or freebies – they just want to get what they paid for. Emphasizing that the customer is always right creates unrealistic expectations for customers, some of whom take advantage.

Victoria’s Secret outlets lose tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise per month from shoplifting, where employees are prohibited from confronting a suspect customer. While it’s mostly a liability concern designed to protect employees from aggressive shoplifters, it’s also a non-confrontation mandate to avoid wrongful accusations.

A preoccupation with customer opinions can prevent your business from evolving, because people are change-averse. In 2016, Toblerone altered the shape of its distinctive triangular chocolate bars to maintain current prices after the cost of raw ingredients jumped, and customers balked at the change even though it benefited them.

Jeff Brooks, an expert in fundraising for nonprofits, writes that he often sees revenues drop by 25-50 percent after a company changes its name, and that’s down to the change-resistant cornerstone of brain science. The best way to go about a name change is to keep the familiar part of your company name, such as Apple Computer to Apple, or Dunkin’ Donuts dropping the ‘Donut.’

Happy employees equal happy customers

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin conglomerate, outspokenly touts an “employee-first” philosophy based on the equation that happy employees equal happy customers. Meanwhile, legendary Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune turned the airline around from the brink of a third bankruptcy and the top ranking for customer complaints by putting more trust in his people, which he details in his book Worst to First.

“We sent word into the field that henceforth we wanted our employees to use their judgement, not follow some rigid manual,” Bethune told aviation news site “When faced with an atypical situation, employees were instructed to do what was right for the customer and right for the company.”

When renowned political commentator Ann Coulter launched a Twitter tirade against United Airlines for switching her seat, the airline defended its employees against Coulter’s vitriolic tweets, and other customers expressed their solidarity with United.

“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.” - Gordon Bethune in Worst to First

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