No, the customer is not always right (and why it’s risky to say so)

Everyone — whether they’ve worked in customer service or not — has heard the phrase ‘the customer is always right’.

The idea behind the phrase is to create a great customer experience. But when customers parrot the well-known phrase to agents, it’s usually during a difficult interaction. When it’s the employers enforcing it, it doesn’t inspire agents to feel supported at work.

In short, ‘the customer is always right’ is wrong. In fact, the customer is not always right, and it’s risky and harmful to say they are.

Here’s why.

The customer is always right

The age-old motto ‘the customer is always right’ came from Harry Gordon Selfridge in 1909. The idea behind it was that customer complaints should be believed and treated seriously — a good practice.

So, why is ‘the customer is always right’ a popular saying?

For a start, it’s something that customers like to hear — and think. No one likes being wrong. And after all, without customers, you wouldn’t have a business. So, it’s important to keep your customer happy.

But does that mean you and your team need to bend over backwards for every interaction? Or take the blame for mistakes that the business is not in any way responsible for?

The customer is sometimes wrong

The thing is, no matter how often you try to insist otherwise, customers are not omniscient. And sometimes, it’s okay to say that the customer is not always right. Customer service agents — no matter how good — cannot change reality.

The risk with insisting that the customer is unequivocally correct — even when they’re wrong — is that it means agents don’t have the training or support to deal with mistaken customers. How should they go about serving a customer with an indisputably incorrect view of the situation or the abilities of the agent?

For instance, the customer has misunderstood your company policy. Or their facts about a product of yours are wrong. What happens if their request won’t get the result they want? They’re wrong about what needs to be done, and they’ll be upset when it doesn’t work.

When a customer is wrong, it’s the job of the agent to enlighten them with the truth. To give them insight into the real policy, to help them understand to make the most of your products. But that’s impossible when the customer isn’t allowed to be wrong.

The employee needs your support

A ‘the customer is always right’ mindset is damaging to your employee morale.  

It’s demoralising taking the blame for everything — particularly when it’s not your fault. It’s miserable feeling powerless to help a customer because they’re wrong about a policy or product. Employees get rightfully upset when managers support unruly or abusive customers instead of their team. And it’s frustrating when you’re forced to compromise on morals because a customer is demanding something that goes against them.

In other words, ‘the customer is always right’ is a mentality that risks damaging your employee satisfaction.

The result is poorer customer service, and higher employee churn. How can team members create great experiences when they’re miserable, feel unsafe, and are not empowered to actually solve customer problems?

The customer might not be worth keeping

This brings us to another reason why the customer is not always right. And that’s that some customers simply aren’t worth it. We’re talking about the abusive and bad customers that are unreasonable and offensive. (And also, ironically, are probably more likely to spout the ‘the customer is always right’ mantra at your team.)

Bad customers make unreasonable demands and are unwilling to compromise. They don’t respect your operating hours, they eat up an unbalanced amount of your team’s time, demanding things you can’t feasibly provide.

Abusive customers take it a step further and attack your agents. They swear, threaten, and insult. They swing personally charged attacks and sometimes even engage in hate speech.

‘The customer is always right’ would have you doing gymnastics to kowtow to these customers. It gives abusive customers power over your agents — they’re right and there’s nothing the agent can do about it. The result is stressed-out agents and customers being rewarded for atrocious behaviour.

Sometimes, losing a customer is the preferable option. 

The customer isn’t always satisfiable

It’s impossible to please everyone. It’s a fact of life. Yet the mentality of ‘the customer is always right’ assumes that it’s possible to satisfy every customer all the time.

Sometimes people just want to complain. These customers aren’t looking for satisfaction, they’re looking for a fight, or trying to see what they can get out of you for free.

Other customers will simply have a different taste than the things you offer. Trying to please everyone dilutes your brand. It’s far better to have a clear-cut audience than none at all.

What instead?

Accepting that no, the customer is not always right doesn’t mean agents should be insisting that customers are wrong all the time. That would quickly make for some very upset customers.

So, what should happen? Here are a few quick tips.

  • 1. Listen

Customers with a problem, before anything else, want to be listened to and understood. So, no matter whether they’re wrong or right, pay attention to what they’re saying.

  • 2. Don’t spend time playing the blame game

There’s no need to identify who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’. It’s not helpful, makes for a bad experience, and wastes time. The focus should instead rest on solving the problem at hand. That’s why the customer has reached out, at the end of the day.

  • 3. Judge on a case-by-case basis

Sometimes, it’s worth going that extra mile to make it up to a customer when something has gone wrong. But doing so shouldn’t come at the cost of support for your team. So, use your best judgement — and empower your agents to do the same.

The customer is not always right

‘The customer is always right’ is one of those sayings that sounds great in theory, but in practice, couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s risky to adopt this motto in your customer service. It hurts your agents, it hurts your customers, and it hurts your business.

So no, the customer is not always right, and that’s okay.  

Useful links

How to respectfully disagree with customers

ESAT: employee satisfaction and why it matters

Types of customers on your chat channel, and how to handle them

Agent empowerment: what is it, and why is it so important?