Experience Blog

The Ethnography of Experience

The Customer is Always Right (Except for All Those Other Times)

Harry Gordon Selfridge 

Harry Gordon Selfridge 

Thanks to Harry Gordon Selfridge, we all know rule #1 - “the customer is always right.” Even if you didn't know its origin, you know the rule exists and have accepted it as a core commandment of business. But adhering to this commandment in real life is more complicated than it seems. The statement implies that whatever the customer wants, the customer gets, but there have to be limits. A customer might want to pay one dollar for a hundred dollar item, but such a request would rarely, if ever, be granted. Americans are so averse to haggling that one might even say “The price is right,” and not the customer. But not all situations are so cut-and-dried. 

On July 26th, a small group of people got together to discuss this topic - is the customer is always right, and if not, where do you draw the line. It was the first in a series of discusison groups we're calling CX Frontiers. This program is something Megan Burns and I came up with a few months ago. We saw the need for a safe space where small groups of people can come together to have open-ended discussion about thorny topics in customer experience and experience design, just like this one. Thanks to our partner Mike Condon at Insperity, the series is off to a a great start. 

For those who couldn't be there, here's a summary of the conversation. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of strong opinions about when customers are right, when they're not, and how to respond in either situation. 

Gandhi did NOT say this. And why would we think he did?

Gandhi did NOT say this. And why would we think he did?


1. The customer is NOT always right.
Everyone has stories about problematic customers. In fact, some of us were the problematic customer (you know who you are). There is a line that can be crossed, and much like trying to judge what is pornographic or obscene material and what is art, the beauty (or obscenity) is in the eye of the beholder. As with everything, context matters. Many companies are tiered based on the types of customers they reach and the level of services that they offer. What is entertained in one situation might not be allowed in another. The goal posts constantly shift, and it can be hard to provide certainty of where they are. Even the rudest customer can be treated as king. Additionally, sometimes customers do not know enough to be right. A knowledge differential between customer and worker, for instance, can mean the difference between an informed and uninformed opinion. Just ask any doctor when having discussions about vaccines (please enter your anti-vac or pro-vac comments below).

2. We should try to understand the customer perspective.
While the customer might not be right, the customer does in fact have a point of view about being right. To think of a customer being right is also to entertain that a customer can be ‘wronged.’ This means the customer can feel slighted, wronged, disrespected, not valued, etc. about the violation of some expected treatment. By seeking to understand where the customer is coming from, we are in a better position to at least respect the point of view even if it means that we don’t always cede to it.

Not urine, but you get the point.

Not urine, but you get the point.

At the same time, customers can be delusional. It happens. Not all points of view are equally valid. The television show Hoarders is a great example of this. You have cleaning professionals and organizers trying to both understand why a person has kept gallon jugs full of urine, while at the same time encouraging that person to get rid of said jugs. The hoarder is not always right. Even though there are many attempts to understand the root of the problem, at the end of the day, the jugs of urine gotta go. 


3. We can try to set and shape customer expectations.
If we think of meeting customer expectations as a ratio, there is both the amount of what is expected next to the amount of what is fulfilled. Along with trying to meet expectations that exist, you also can lower expectations to meet what you offer. This is why “The customer is always right” exists next to “You get what you pay for.” Or, as I like to say, you can’t get a gourmet meal at fast food prices. And we have seen a lowering of expectations in industries like the airlines. One executive commented that customers are less likely to complain because they are more used to the treatment. The frog in boiling water refuses to jump out of the seat which is too narrow, with a painful armrest, and no leg room. I don’t know of many cases where passengers have stood up with signs proclaiming “THIS IS NOT NORMAL” on the last flight they took. Increasingly, just get me there relatively on time, in one piece, with my stuff, without the intervention of security, is the standard.

This even extended to limiting expectations of when one would respond to emails, or the timeline in which work would get done. As I tell my students, you are free to email me anytime you want; just don’t expect a response any time you want. Some CX Frontiers attendees talked about writing emails at night, but setting them to send in the morning. Or limiting expectations in other ways so that customers don’t get used to just-in-time processing of customer requests.

4. The difference between a B2B and B2C environment
Everyone acknowledged there was an important difference between having businesses or people as customers. Of course, even in a B2B environment, there is a person that is the customer. But whether the end customer is an individual or a business can impact how one approaches whether the customer is right, or if not even right should be entertained. Workers are more likely to put up with unreasonable requests when working with a customer if customers are hard to come by. In the cost/benefit analysis of keeping one’s sanity in the midst of putting up with difficult demands, there is a breaking point where it is no longer worth it.

In a B2C environment, here was more of a feeling that employees could be thrown under the bus. The most recent Exhibit A is when a racist customer berated an African American Home Depot worker who asked the customer to leash his dog. The worker was fired by Home Depot, despite his ears of service and great record. After the social media backlash, the worker was offered his job back, but refused. Once that trust is lost between worker and employer it can be hard to get back. Without that trust, the motivation to do right by company and customer drastically reduces.

5. Empowering employers with a standard of ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable.’
All of this conversation left the question of what do you tell your employers in terms of what they should do. The first order of business should be to diffuse the situation, or at least de-escalate the conflict. One of the traps that people can fall into is positioning the customer and company in opposite corners, with the worker representing the company. Such an intergroup arrangement can lead to rapid escalation of conflict. Trying to interactionally align with the customer can go a long way in defusing things. Workers need the emotional intelligence to recognize the opportunities to defuse and de-escalate. For those who do not have this skill natural, there should be time and resources put toward training in this space. You cannot have a stringent protocol to follow. Rather, workers have to be empowered to manage things, and coached about how to do so.

Finally, it might be the case that a customer needs to be fired. Terminating a relationship of any kind can be hard, but sometimes it is the only viable solution. Strategies range from telling the client or customer that their patronage is no longer welcome, or that the relationship is ending. Also, some talked about pricing themselves so high that the customer would move along. In the event that the customer stayed, the hassle would be worth the price. While firing a customer may be a bold move, sometime bold action is needed in times of crisis.

Summary Points
Just because the customer is not always right, it does not mean the company and worker can be wrong. In the end, the basic outline and sets of recommendations from our conversation was:

  1.  Empathy as a place to start
  2.  Judgment exercised by the staff toward the customer
  3.  Diffuse & De-escalate the situation with conversational strategies and emotional intelligence
  4.  Resolution that addresses concerns but based on a fair and reasonable solution
  5.  Support by the company for the work that employees do when these steps are followed.

Have other thoughts? Be sure to share them in the comments section. And stay tuned for next month's CX Frontiers event!