Thinking Beyond the Consumer, Part 4: Is the Customer Really Always Right?


There’s an idiom in American business that the customer is always right. It makes sense in theory – after all, your customers are the ones who pay the bills. To earn repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals, you need satisfied customers.

You can’t take them for granted, either. According to research published in the Journal of Service Research, about a third of customers experience rude treatment by an employee at least once a month. As you would expect, these experiences decreased their likelihood of patronizing that business again.

Companies who want to keep their customers take complaints seriously. For example, when an airport security worker passed a nasty note to a traveler, Virginia security company VMD Corp summarily fired the employee. Similarly, when Amazon customer information was leaked, Amazon immediately terminated an employee and emailed its customer about the incident.

Sometimes, that’s the right approach. Other times, not quite. 


Questioning the Maxim

If you think about it, the customer is always right essentially means that the employee is always wrong

What a demoralizing stance to take. The message that comes across to your employees becomes, we want you to put our company’s needs before your own — but if a customer complains, we’ll take their side. 

So let’s take a closer look. Is the customer, in fact, always right?

Let’s take healthcare as a radical example. A 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine discovered that patients who are most satisfied with their healthcare have a higher rate of hospitalization – and even of death – than those are less satisfied. This seems counter-intuitive. What’s the explanation? 

Doctors who prioritize patient satisfaction over quality healthcare may be unwilling to bring up uncomfortable issues like substance abuse or mental health. They may be nervous to explain the risks of potential treatments. And they may be more likely to agree to unnecessary testing that does more harm than good.

Other industries, too, face customer dissatisfaction that cannot be attributed to negative employee actions. What happens when a customer complains to your employee that your product doesn’t work as expected — even though it works exactly as it was designed to? Or if a customer demands a refund due to a broken product — that only broke due to improper usage? What about customers who spew verbal abuse towards your employees with no apparent provocation?

Sometimes, the customer is 100% wrong.

Even when the customer is respectful, there are some client requests that can, and should be refused, as this video illustrates:

Constantly defending the customer can cause damage to your company. Here’s why:

  • Forcing employees to adopt a “the customer is always right” mindset without exception can drain vital resources from your company, in the form of refunds, discounts, or employee time that should be spent elsewhere.
  • There are some customers that you don’t want to keep. Customers who constantly complain, make demands, or create unnecessary stress often aren’t worth it.
  • Most importantly, defending customers by default can seriously damage employee morale. And demoralized employees tend to provide worse service to other customers.

The Bottom Line

So how should you approach customer dissatisfaction with an employee?

  • Be proactive. Put policies into place that clarify how an employee should act in specific, predictable situations, in order to safeguard both your business and your employees.
  • Be transparent. Educate clients from the outset about what to expect when working with your company.
  • Stay calm. Deal with any disagreements that arise respectfully.
  • Listen to more than one perspective. Appreciate that there’s no rule that applies in all cases; there are two sides to most stories.
  • Support your employees when they are in the right. If it becomes clear that your employee was not negligent or incompetent, don’t “throw them under the bus.” Show them that you have their backs.  

Employees need to prove themselves, but you also need to show loyalty to them. That means backing them up unless you can tell that they were at fault. By doing so, you will be improving employee morale, protecting your business from client exploitation, and indirectly benefiting your customers across the board.

This is part 4, the final post in a series that examines how companies should look beyond the consumer when considering the use of marketing techniques. This post focuses on when to back up your employees to build up their morale. See all the articles in the series here