Featured Image for the blog: The Customer Doesn't Want to Be Right

Customers are complicated and unpredictable, but there’s no business without them. Just because your product/service is good doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect for every customer. Issues are going to come up. Things are going to break. Services are going to fail. When that inevitably happens, customers will want to be taken care of. They will want to be heard, and to feel understood, and they will want things to work out for them.

Too often, one poor interaction—whether based on a misunderstanding, a poorly performing agent, or just that kind of customer—can cost you.

A slogan came into existence in 1909, commonly attributed to Harry Gordon Selfridge, based on the essence of these basic principles of customer service. It was meant to instill in agents a respect for the customer, and a commitment to taking care of customers’ emotional needs (at the time understood to apparently entail being “right”).

Today’s companies want happy customers, too…so does “the customer is always right” mentality still provide customers with what they truly want?

The Short Answer: No

If you ask anyone works in customer service whether the customer is always right, you can expect to hear a very-close-to-unanimous chorus emphatically sharing one answer:


The Longer Answer: No (And Here’s Why)

While “the customer is always right” prompted an important shift in how companies viewed/treated their customers…that was over 100 years ago. The bar for acceptable customer service is being raised on a monthly, if not weekly or even daily, basis. So, what was exceptional in 1909 is beyond obsolete today.

While taking “the customer is always right” to heart might improve individual interactions—with a certain type of customer, at least—it’s not the best course of action for sustainable results.

Today’s customers have come to expect more informed, personalized service—merely being considered “right” doesn’t constitute a meaningful interaction and certainly doesn’t inspire loyalty. Customers want to feel known and valued, treated like individuals…so applying such a sweeping absolute to a diverse customer base seems irresponsible at best. Providing the treatment they expect requires agents to listen to and understand them, to critically think, to empathize…

You know, to do what you pay them to do.

And that brings us to the main problem with the “customer is always right” mentality: it disempowers agents...which is not good for the customer experience. In fact, few things could be worse for it.

Basically, saying the “the customer is always right” in today’s context devastatingly undermines agents’ abilities to serve customers the way they want to be served. Quick resolutions are important…but so is being treated like a human being (rather than a case or issue number).

You hire smart, intuitive candidates for your customer service agent positions. You train them to understand and believe in the brand/product/service, and encourage them to provide smooth, consistent interactions. You cultivate empathy and critical thinking as the main tools of the trade.

But customers (and their issues) aren’t necessarily smooth or consistent. So the “customer is always right” mandate puts agents in a situation in which they have to compromise both principles and value in order to protect customers from being irked. Especially when a brand adopts a public slogan upholding the customer’s unflappable “right-ness,” it sends a negative message to agents. It reduces their role to that of yes men (or women), rather than empathetic critical thinkers capable of understanding and resolving complex issues.

Broadly believing “the customer is always right” undercuts customers’ desire to be known, valued, and understood. It treats all customers as anonymous/interchangeable, and implies that all issues have a single desired resolution: for the customer to feel like they’re right.

Instead, agents must be empowered to treat customers as individuals, each issue as a unique case, and for the customer not to feel like they are right, but to feel as though they’re being treated right.

Final Thoughts

Simply put, the “customer is always right” philosophy has a negative impact on both agent and customer experience…as well as an organization’s bottom line.

Agents’ lives become mundane and uninspiring, operating in the gray area between people-pleaser and doormat. The skills they’ve developed (empathy, critical thinking, etc.) are devalued, as it quickly begins to feel like management is on the customers’ side in any interaction that goes a little sideways.

At a certain point, too, when agents get disenfranchised and burned out, they’re likely to just leave.

As Shep Hyken points out, that becomes contagious, and compounds the issue, as you can end up with “a team that is demotivated, disengaged and even disloyal to the company.”

This, then, causes customer service to suffer, meaning more customers are likely to bail. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Customers, while they may occasionally appreciate/benefit from simply being “right,” do not receive the level of in-depth, individualized service they have come to expect from top brands. They are going to bail when they realize they can get better, more consistent service elsewhere.

This leaves organizations picking up the pieces, scrambling to replace both agents and customers…and to figure out where it all went wrong.

So while the “customer is always right” platitude does not apply to the current landscape, the root intention is still worth taking to heart—to take care of customers’ emotional well-being as well as their immediate issue. That’s a major difference between customer experience (the competitive battlefield) and customer satisfaction, after all.

The difference is that today’s customer (and world) is much more complex, and they expect more…not to be “right,” but to be treated right…like a human being.

Yes, customers are right a lot of the time, but they’re so much more than that. And yes, your agents can treat customers like they’re always right, but they too are so much more than that.

At Sharpen, we believe happy agents make happy customers.
To take better care of your customers, take care of your agents. That means giving them not only the right technology to do their jobs effectively/consistently, but also empowering them with the ability to exercise their people skills and critical thinking, to address the customer relationship rather than just a satisfactory transaction/resolution. It’s more sustainable, and much, much more humane for all involved.