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Yaneek Page | The customer is not always right

Published:Friday | August 4, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The assertion that the customer is always right is possibly the most common management mantra repeated relentlessly by businesses, organisations and customers over the last 100 years since it was coined by retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge in 1909.

Repetition and endurance notwithstanding, the reality is that the customer may not always be right.

Suggesting that a customer can be wrong is not meant to imply that the customer is not king or that he or she should be diminished or disenfranchised in any way. They are in fact the reason for a firm's existence and their satisfaction is paramount.

However, managers will find themselves in conflict with staff who are entrusted to be the vanguards of exceptional customer service if they don't acknowledge and train employees on the fundamental principle that customers can and will be wrong on occasion. Here's a case in point.

Some time ago, I was at a restaurant known for healthy meal options when a customer came in behind me and began laughing hysterically upon seeing the server. When she smiled and asked how she could help, he replied: "Then lady how you so big and fat and work here?"

The two men who accompanied him snickered in amusement. Her smile vanished completely and her shoulders slumped considerably, but she remained calm. He continued to chastise her until I intervened.

Her colleagues looked shocked but remained silent. The server didn't say a word, but when her eyes could no longer hold back the tears, she quickly retreated beyond the doors of the kitchen, out of sight and earshot.


Privileged position


This example begs the question - what if this customer came in and verbally abused employees every day? Would he always be right? Employees would likely be very demoralised if they were forced to suffer unprovoked and unjust insults from customers who abuse their privileged position.

Employees are the most critical resource available to a business, and their feelings and satisfaction matter. In addition, other customers are likely to be angered and turned off by the behaviour of rude customers who remain uncontained, just as I was at the time of the incident mentioned above.

The fact is customers are human and can make mistakes. They can also be offensive or disrespectful. They can be threatening. They can be insulting. They can be unreasonable. They are not always right.

In fact, there may be cases when insisting that the customer is always right, even when they were wrong, can expose the business to litigation. This risk is so significant that in some enterprises lawyers work closely with customer service to ensure that communications or service recovery efforts with aggrieved customers don't unwittingly concede legal liability.

Responses to complaints, especially those made in writing via email or letter, are particularly scrutinised to ensure that they can't be used as evidence against the company in the event of court proceedings.

Having dispelled the notion that the customer is always right, the question now is how do organisations achieve service excellence and continue to attract, retain and delight customers without being accusatory or explicitly saying 'you were wrong'.

In particular, how do organisations ensure that even when customers are wrong they receive maximum respect and excellent service so as to safeguard their dignity and feelings and the reputation of the company.

The starting point is that the business and its employees must at all times be guided by its stated code of ethics and core values, which commonly include customer first, integrity, ownership, teamwork, and openness, to name a few. The next step is to have policies on what type of environment the business will engender for customers and staff and exactly how that will be achieved.

Once there is a clear commitment to upholding core values from leadership, and supporting guidelines and procedures on how those values should be operationalised at every level in the entity, the key actions will be hands-on and continuous training, assessment and evaluation.

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- Yaneek Page is an entrepreneur and trainer, and creator/executive producer of The Innovators TV series. Email: Twitter: @yaneekpage. Website: