When the Customer is Not Always Right

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The phrase “The customer is always right” is credited to Harry Gordon Selfridge all the way back to 1909. Yes, that long ago.

You might know the Selfridge name. He was the American born retail magnate who founded the London-based department store Selfridges.

And it was during his 20-year leadership of Selfridges that led to his becoming known as the ‘Earl of Oxford Street’.

As rags to riches stories go, his reads well. He was born in Wisconsin, and young Harry Selfridge left school at 14 to work at a bank in Michigan.

After a series of jobs, Selfridge found a position at the department store Marshall Field’s in Chicago. He stayed with Marshall Field for the next 25 years.

It was in 1906 that Selfridge invested £400,000 in building his own department store in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street.


It took three years to build, opening on 15 March 1909, and he remained chairman of Selfridges until he retired in 1941.

Apologies for straying, I love stories about people achieving the dreams through hard work and persistence. So back to “The customer is always right.”

For many years the expression has been used to convey a sense of real attention to customer’s needs. Like many proverbs, the idea is simple and easy to understand.

There’s no doubting the sentiment or reasoning behind it. Even better, it’s a short enough quote to make it memorable. But should it still be used as the measuring stick for excellent service?

A Weapon

What’s the benefit of handing a self-righteous customer with a poor attitude a weapon like this? One they could use against any customer service employee they think should experience their wrath.

When the Customer is Not Always Right
“It is so much easier to be nice, to be respectful, to put yourself in your customers’ shoes and try to understand how you might help them before they ask for help, than it is to try to mend a broken customer relationship.” – Mark Cuban

When staff members are allowed to be undermined by a simple but irrefutable rule, it doesn’t create a pleasant working environment.

Think about it for a moment, a rewording of that rule is, “The customer service assistant is always wrong.”

UN Diplomats

Employees need to feel that their input to the sales process is valued. And that they play an essential part in the resolution of disagreements. It’s unlikely a UN diplomat would have their diplomatic powers reduced to a “customer is always right” straightjacket.

It is time businesses begin empowering their employees to take a more proactive role in complaint resolution. The alternative is a mere capitulation to the rants of unpleasant people with buyer’s remorse.

Here is a simple truth. Abusive customers, customers who refuse to read the terms and conditions, operating instructions, hazard warnings or other essential details of a product, are bad for business.

Bad For Business

They waste your company’s time demanding resolutions to problems they caused in the first place. They complain about products they haven’t taken the time to understand, or ignored your training about.

When the Customer is Not Always Right
“Customer service is just a day-in, day-out, ongoing, never-ending, unremitting, persevering, compassionate type of activity.” – Leon Gorman

All of this makes it financially non-viable to keep their custom.

And there is more to this than just financial repercussions. Consider your employees’ sense of wellbeing. How much do you value it? Depressed employees who feel devalued at every turn will not make good ambassadors of your brand.

A Mirror

As humans, we tend to mirror each other. A customer with a complaint is likely to perceive the attitude of a worn down, disgruntled employee as being directly attributed to their complaint.

As a direct result, they are likely to mirror that attitude, becoming more aggravated as the encounter goes on.

Then there is the fact that some customers are just wrong. Nothing else to it.

Southwest Airlines

Herb Kelleher writes in the excellent book “Nuts!: Southwest Airline’s Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success” about Southwest Airlines that they refuse to carry bad customers. They write to them and suggest they “Fly somebody else. Don’t abuse our people.”

When the Customer is Not Always Right article image 3
“Your customers are the lifeblood of your business. Their needs and wants impact every aspect of your business, from product development to content marketing to sales to customer service.” – John Rampton

Sometimes, despite the best efforts of your company, you will find yourself in the position of having to deal with a difficult customer. And you want to keep your cool.

Firstly, difficult customers come in a range of personality types. They can be angry, intimidating, impatient, demanding, indecisive, and different degrees of each personality type.

Angry Customers

The basics of dealing with angry customers regardless of their personality type are:

  • Keep Calm
  • Tune In

Just like the popular poster says, “Keep calm and carry on serving.”

When the Customer is Not Always Right
“Business is all about the customer: what the customer wants and what they get. Generally, every customer wants a product or service that solves their problem, worth their money, and is delivered with amazing customer service.” – Fabrizio Moreira

Remaining calm ensures that the encounter does not escalate into a shouting match. When you react in a way that mirrors your customer, it can cause an escalation of their anger to try to shout you down.

By remaining calm, you remove their excuse for getting louder.


There is one caveat with this. Don’t remain calm, but use a sarcastic tone of voice or continue to repeat the same canned response back to the customer.

Which brings us to the second point.

Tune in to what your customer is saying. Don’t jump to any conclusions about who is right or wrong in a confrontation. Listen to what makes this case unique.

By demonstrating that you are listening in a patient manner and asking questions to clarify the source of your customer’s displeasure, you will disarm them.

Disarm Them

If you can’t help the customer, explain why and offer to find someone who can. Always follow up on such an offer and make sure the issue is followed up on until the customer walks away knowing you have done everything that you could.

Often this will require you to make decisions that make sense. That means you need to adhere to the spirit of your company’s policy on the situation, but never the letter of the policy.

When the Customer is Not Always Right
“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” – Jeff Bezos

Policies are guidelines. If there is no policy in place, now’s a fantastic time to create one so that you can deal more effectively with customers who come to you or your colleagues with a similar problem in the future.

When trying to remain calm, it’s always a good idea to ask the customer what resulted in them coming to you and if they found you easily.

Source Of Anger

The source of your customer’s anger may have less to do with your product or service than you think. Frequently, it may have a lot to do with inconvenient parking, an argument with their boss, or a lengthy queue at your customer service desk.

Come on; we have all wasted 10 minutes of our lives on the phone trying to figure out which option to choose from the automated phone system.

Remember what it was like the last time you called for support only to find yourself at the end of a long queue of other callers before you even got to speak to someone about your problem. Did you get impatient?

And if you are unable to resolve their issue then take a page from Herb Kelleher’s book. “I am sorry that is all I can do to help you.”

Stay calm and remember the last time you had a complaint about a product or service and how you felt at the time. Let me know what you do when faced with difficult customers in the comments box.

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David Brett-Williams