Is the Customer Always Right?

customer always right

Years ago, I worked as a barista at a local coffee house chain.

As often happens, rules were passed down to staff from management that sometimes caused trouble for us, even if we understood why the rule had been initiated. While they were well-intended, it often seemed as though policies were put in place without much thought of how they would affect both customers and staff.

So came about the Issue of the Tea Bags (stay with me here). The coffee house served loose-leaf tea, that baristas spooned into small tea bags, tied off, and popped into customers’ cups, topped with hot water.

Until suddenly, it was decided that tying off the tea bags was unsanitary; we were instructed to drape them over the side of cups.

This provoked considerable ire among customers. One day, a regular berated me for not tying off his tea bag. When I told him it was now our policy to leave them untied, he scoffed. “No it’s not—I’ve been coming here for years! The other baristas always tie the tea bags!”

Insisting that it was our policy, I turned to my manager to back me up. Instead, she told him that he was right, tied his tea bag in the old way, and apologized profusely.

I was left stunned, irritated, and more than a little embarrassed. Here I was, following our new rules, and the customer was in the wrong; should I have said, “You’re right, I’m sorry,” and done as he asked, even though it was against our rules? And why didn’t my manager stick up for me, politely tell the customer about the change, and follow the policy she knew was in place?

Where did the idea that “the customer is always right” originate?

First of all, where did we even get the idea that the customer is always right?

Supposedly coined by Selfridges department store founder Harry Gordon Selfridge in 1909, it’s been a persistent mantra behind many business’s customer service style. Employees are encouraged to provide great customer service, and customers know they are being taken care of.

So, in essence, the idea isn’t bad; after all, I’d venture that every single business out there would agree that they aim to give great customer service and create happy, satisfied customers.

But, it’s not necessarily a good idea to build your entire customer service process around this idea, as it actually has several flaws.

What happens when the customer isn’t right?

As in my experience as a barista, there will be times when customers ask for something that you’re not willing to give them, or that goes against your policies.

Maybe they misread your website, perhaps your company didn’t communicate a change in rules, or there was simply a mental mix up. Whatever the case, the reality is that customers will ask for things that you can’t (or don’t want) to give them, because it isn’t something your company does.

When you’re face to face with a customer who is upset about something, you’re at a bit of a crossroads. Do you give the customer what they want, and go against your policies (potentially throwing an employee or two under the bus while you’re at it), or do you tell the customer that what they’re asking for isn’t possible, or isn’t the way you do business, and risk angering them further?

Stop thinking about who is right and who is wrong—but don’t ignore your policies

So, your customers will sometimes be wrong.

The reality, however, is that it doesn’t really matter.

The issue isn’t about right and wrong; it’s about how they feel.

So, focus on that. Can you resolve the issue and make sure the customer is ultimately happy, while still sticking to your policies?

To use the example of my tea bag experience again, maybe my manager could have said:

“Actually, our policy recently changed; we’re not tying off tea bags anymore. We decided it’s unsanitary, as we’re regularly handling money. I’ll wash my hands and tie yours off now, but in the future, our baristas will have to follow that rule. You can always ask them to hand you the tea bag and tie it off yourself if you like though!”

Or, even better, we could have all communicated more clearly to customers from the start about the change in rules, so no one was caught off-guard.

Sticking to your established policies doesn’t have to look like saying “you’re wrong.” It can look like meeting their needs this one time, or offering to meet them in the middle, while still honoring your policies and letting them know how the situation will be handled going forward.

The ultimate key, though, is to approach the situation with customer happiness in mind, and not a focus on right or wrong. Often times, a customer just wants to be heard—and offering an emotionally intelligent response will help, even if you can’t give them everything they want.

Assess whether or not your rules and policies make sense

If a customer is confused, upset, or misunderstands something about the way you do business, it’s also worth taking a moment to assess the situation.

Does your rule or policy make sense? Is it something that actually creates a lot of confusion and unpleasantness for your customer? Furthermore, are multiple customers confused or upset about this particular thing on a regular basis?

If so, it might be time to take a good, hard look at the rule you have in place, and see how you can change it so that customers are happier from the beginning. It’s important to look at the situation where they were “wrong” and determine if there is a change needed in the way you do your business.

Create a feedback loop between customers, employees, and yourself

On the same note, keep in regular communication with your employees about this. What do customers often get confused or upset by, or regularly get wrong?

Creating an open dialogue here is important; there might be things your team sees that you don’t. Their observations are important—they will help you get out ahead of misunderstandings. Are you regularly asking your team to share customer feedback? If not, consider working this discussion topic into a meeting, or finding another way to solicit regular feedback.

On the same note, consider establishing a way to gather feedback from customers on a regular basis. This might look like an email follow up survey, direct outreach, or a number of other strategies depending on your industry.

For example, if the coffee shop managers had regularly checked in with staff about what customers were saying, they’d have learned that no one was a huge fan of the new tea bag rule. Customers regularly complained, told us we were wrong, and generally were unhappy. If a dialogue had been created, perhaps a new solution could have been implemented—like baristas putting on gloves before tying off tea bags.

When the customer isn’t right: The do’s and don’ts

  • Do: Hear the customer out
  • Do: Work with the customer to achieve a resolution that they are happy with
  • Don’t: Worry so much about right and wrong—focus on resolving the issue going forward and keeping the customer happy, while still sticking to your rules
  • Do: Educate customers (and staff, if need be) on your policies and explain the reasoning behind them
  • Don’t: Blame or shame your staff
  • Do: Consider whether or not a policy change is needed
  • Do: Use the opportunity to create a feedback loop between yourself and staff members

Ultimately, the customer isn’t always going to be right.

The trick is to get less hung up on who is right, and focus on satisfying your customer and solving their problem, as well as figuring out how you can use feedback to improve your business.

Posted in: Customer Service

Briana Morgaine

Briana Morgaine

Briana is a content and digital marketing specialist, editor, and writer. She enjoys discussing business, marketing, and social media, and is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Bri is a resident of Portland, Oregon, and she can be found, infrequently, on Twitter.

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