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Is the Customer Really Always Right?

Is the Customer Really Always Right?

Customers aren’t easy to come by or retain these days, but they’re also not always right. Here’s how to keep them happy without giving away too much.


A phrase that dates back to 1909, “The customer is always right” was originally coined by a London department store founder who wanted to assure customers that they would get good service at his store. It’s been used a lot since then, having endured exactly 110 years.

In fact, the cliché that the customer is always right is so common that some companies build their entire business models off it. “However, it’s not really a good business strategy,” Pluto TV’s Ilya Pozin writes in The Customer Isn’t Always Right – Here’s When. “Knowing that bad customer service could kill their brands, [companies] cling to what seems like a tried-and-true principle for delivering a great experience.”

That’s because even stellar attempts to provide customer service don’t always hit the mark. This is particularly true when what customers need doesn’t match up with what they say they want. “At times, you may have to acknowledge that the customer is wrong and risk short-term dissatisfaction,” Pozin writes, “in order to provide a truly great overall experience.”

Robert Sollars, author of Unconventional Customer Service:  How To Break the Rules and Provide Unparalleled Service, says companies that adhere too closely to the “customer is always right” mantra are doing themselves and their customers a disservice. “The customer is not always right,” says Sollars, “despite the poster or placard that most businesses had up on the wall 30 years ago.”

In fact, Sollars says it’s perfectly okay to tell a customer “no” if warranted. “There are definitely times when saying ‘no’ is a good idea for you, your customer, and your bottom line,” says Sollars, who, when working as an operations supervisor for a large national security company, had a client demand that he fire an employee because that worker was African American with red hair.

“I told him that was illegal and I wouldn’t do it,” Sollars recalls. “The client then contacted the branch manager and the account manager and the deed was done, although the reason for the termination was ‘unruly behavior and disturbing female employees in the parking lot.’”

According to Sollars, that particular account comprised over 75% of the security firm’s billable hours. “Had the branch manager stood up to that client, we probably wouldn’t have lost the account anyway,” he concludes, “because we were the best game in Kansas City at the time.”

This is just one example of a time when the customer was clearly wrong, says Sollars, and where the company went out of its way to accommodate that customer and stick to its “customer is always right” rule.

“Customers will bluster and get upset if you tell them ‘no,’ especially if they really think that they’re right. But if you hold tight to your principles, they will respect you more for it,” says Sollars. “If they respect you for that, chances are they won’t go further in requesting more outlandish items and won’t cancel the contract or end the relationship.”

The Balancing Act

Companies across the board deal with unreasonable customer requests and complaints on a daily basis. But rather than just deferring to the “customer is always right” motto that someone came up with more than 100 years ago, some firms are bucking the trend and doing what’s actually right—not just what the client thinks is right.

At Valeria Fine Jewelry in Dallas, Owner Lucas Horton firmly believes that customers aren’t always right. In fact, this gemologist says that they’re rarely right. And while he’s not in the electrical distribution field, Horton says distributors will be able to relate to his experiences in the diamond and jewelry world.

“If I’m selling junk that’s made in China and being sold on eBay, then I can afford to eat a loss every once in a while and give the customer what he wants,” says Horton. “However, most of our products and services cost too much to just ‘give away’ to an unjustifiably disgruntled customer just to keep him happy.”

To avoid alienating customers and losing profit margins, Horton takes the time to walk buyers through his design steps and the jewelry-making process. He also gets customers to sign off on those designs before he starts making the product. “That way, if there is a problem, it is the customer’s fault,” says Horton.

Here’s another tip that electrical distributors can use:  Horton tries to get nearly all of his customers to use email or text for communications. That way, if a problem crops up, there is a written record of what was said or agreed to. In a world where official “contracts” and purchase orders are less important than ease of ordering and speed of delivery, even a short text saved on an iPhone can help mitigate customer issues.

“Let’s face it, customers hate to be wrong and will fight you tooth and nail over it,” says Horton, “but when you have their words to refute their claims, it quiets them down very quickly.” Of course, Horton wouldn’t be in business if he treated his customers poorly. In lieu of the “customer is always right,” he prefers The Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have others do unto you).

“I try to treat customers how I would like to be treated; I find that to be the best approach to customer service,” Horton explains. “It provides a level of empathy that doesn’t otherwise exist in business transactions.”

Sometimes They’re Flat Out Wrong

With 20+ years in the customer service industry under her belt, Leanna DeBellevue, owner of Legacy Marketing Agency, says that during that time she’s seen a shift from the “customer is always right” to the “customer’s feelings are minimally considered.”

“Let’s be honest, no matter what the case, we all know that the customer is not always right. In some cases they are flat out wrong,” DeBellevue tells electrical distributors who are striving to find a happy medium on this issue. “However, it is the business’ responsibility to make our customers feel valued and heard. That listening and acknowledging is what creates happy customers.”

For example, if an electrical contractor complains that he’s not getting email responses fast enough, what he’s really saying is that he doesn’t feel important or valued. This perception puts the distributor in a bad position in a world where the next competitor is literally one click away online. DeBellevue says the solution, in this case, could be as simple as using an autoresponder that at least lets the contractor know that his request or question has been received and that it’s in the queue.

When a customer issue does crop up, DeBellevue tells distributors to use a dose of compassion and to focus on providing a high level of service. This helps cultivate happy customers while also highlighting areas where your company can use some improvement. And if your customers do happen to be wrong, says DeBellevue, “if they feel heard, they’ll usually agree to whatever resolution you’re offering—and regardless of previous expectations.”

And remember, says Sollars, that you can do a lot of other things to engender goodwill with customers beyond just cow-towing to their every whim. “If you add value to what you are giving them, in any business, then they will remember that,” says Sollars. “Give that bit of extra service when they weren’t expecting it and you may be surprised at how far that goes.”

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Bridget McCrea  is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

Discussion (2 comments)

    Tim Simpson January 21, 2019 / 11:54 am

    An interesting take on the Century old addage. i do find merit in the article and concept.

    Justice Udochi Nwankwo April 18, 2021 / 5:01 pm

    Glad to read this! I have thought of putting up a write up to canter this old theory of “Custormer is always right” many years back!! Thank God for Bridget who had written this!!! And I will be committed to promoting her thought on the subject matter.
    Customers are woefully wrong most times and cases!!!!

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