The Customer Is Always Right — Really?

May 13, 2017
"The Customer Is Always Right" -- Really? | Person about to shoplift

This blog post is excerpted from Chapter 1 of Be Your Customer’s Hero: Real-World Tips and Techniques for the Service Front Lines.

Let’s start with a quiz. It’s a simple one. Just fill in the blank in this sentence: The customer is always ___.

If you’ve worked in customer service, one word will almost certainly come to mind to complete the phrase. It’s the phrase that has been drilled into our heads, for better or worse, since our  rst exposure to customer service.

And let’s be real—none of us are particularly fond of it.

At a recent conference, I struck up a conversation with a front-line service rep. When I mentioned that I was writing a book on customer service, the first words out of his mouth were, “What do you think of the saying, ‘The customer is always right’”?

“I think it’s ridiculous,” I replied.

He smiled, and then gave me a good-natured slap on the back. “I’m with you, buddy. You should see some of the customers I deal with.”

“The Customer Is Always Right” — Not So Much

“The customer is always right” is perhaps the most repeated and hated phrase in all of customer service.

Taken literally, the idea is a joke. Customers are not always right; in fact, they’re often so wrong that you wonder what they’re even talking about.

Yet the focus on the literal meaning of the phrase has overshadowed the original intent of the idea: putting the customer first above almost everything else. The phrase was designed a long time ago to shift the mindset of service reps from taking advantage of customers to taking care of customers, from giving attitude to giving respect.

At the heart of the phrase’s deeper message is a fundamental truth of customer service, one that you must embrace if you’re going to succeed in a customer-facing role:

You and the customer are not on equal terms.

The Customer Is Always The Priority

Businesses exist to serve customers, and as a customer-facing professional, you’re on the front lines of that service. You’re the one who shows the customer every day how much your organization values him.

Through your demeanor, your words, and your actions, you demonstrate the difference between you and the customer— that you’re there to serve him and even to understand him, when he’s under no obligation to extend you the same courtesy.

For instance, to deliver effective customer care, you need to understand that you don’t know what’s going on in your customers’ lives.

While most customers will never mention their personal issues when transacting business with you, your customer wants you to implicitly understand that her dog just died, that she was just diagnosed with an illness, or that she just received an eviction notice.

Your customer expects your empathy, and you have to give it knowing that you might not get the same in return.

You should show the customer empathy, even knowing you might not get it in return.

Sure, we all wish our customers would understand that two employees got the flu, one went into labor, and one quit without notice—all on Monday—and that’s why the order did not go out on time.

Or that our small business runs on a discount web host for $10 a month, and when that host went down, the key email we were sending on their behalf disappeared into the cyberabyss.

Or that our multinational company’s computer system is an amazing tool that successfully handles a million transactions a day, but that our local office cannot customize it for their needs.

Of course, we wish that our customers understood that things happen, but that’s not how the relationship works.

The Customer Relationship Is Not an Equal One

One of the first steps in adopting a great customer service mindset is embracing the idea that the customer relationship is not an equal one, that we’re there to serve the customer and not the inverse.

As customer-facing professionals, it’s our responsibility to overcome our natural inclination to expect fairness and disabuse ourselves of the notion that the customer is expected to treat us the same way we treat her.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the relationship is one way all the time. Customers have responsibilities too.

Nor does it mean that the customer is exempted from the basics of human decency.

What it does mean is that the relationship is not equal. We’re there to serve the customer, and the responsibility for the relationship is on us.

We’re there to serve the customer, and the responsibility for the relationship is on us.

You see, I don’t think the customer is always right, but I do think the customer is always my top priority. And if you begin with that idea in mind, then you’re on the way to delivering Hero-Class® customer service.

2 thoughts on “The Customer Is Always Right — Really?”

  1. Great article. Thanks for reminding me that the – Customer Relationship is NOT equal. Today I am sharing that at our staff meeting. Sometimes I can forget and especially my younger staff needs reminding. I also ordered your book!

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