“The customer is always right” is a famous phrase commonly attributed to the early 20th”
-century retail pioneers, particularly Harry Gordon Selfridge and Marshall Field.
The consumer culture at the time was “buyer beware,” which means that sellers held little to no liability if
they sold defective or fake goods and that law had very few safety or quality standards for products and
services. This cultural mindset is why the phrase was so revolutionary. Selfridge and Field pioneered a business style that places the customer first—to treat customers with deference and respect and always to provide quality service, every time, without fail. The policy change seems to have worked for them, considering the success of their respective businesses. So, is this absolute mandate still valid? How does their strategy compare to today’s customer service standards?
The Pros And Cons Of A Customer-Centric Mindset
Any mindset comes with a set of pros and cons. Let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages of
following such a strict policy.
Improvement in Customer Conversion and Retention
Showing deference to the customers makes them feel happier with your business. A customer treated
respectfully is much more likely to purchase your product and return to your company for future
transactions. This also poses a good reputation for you in the eyes of other potential customers. Making
customers connect with you and remember you the next time they need a specific product/service.
Lower Chances of Customer Backlash
If you treat customer complaints and requests as gospel, there is a much lower likelihood that your
customers will lash out or publicize perceived grievances. For example, if a customer at a restaurant
claims a problem with their meal, and you immediately and freely replace the dish, the
complaining customer is much less likely to leave a bad review.
Consumer backlash can spell life or death for smaller businesses, so sticking to the “always right” mindset
can be helpful in avoiding such situations.
Demoralizing Employee Morale
Some customers will be demanding no matter how much respect you show them. Having to bow to this
type of customer day-in-day-out can be exhausting. You’ve probably heard at least one nightmare retail
story where entitled customers abuse employees.
This level of exhaustion can be unsustainable, and low employee morale might lead to lower work
speed and quality or, worst case, more employee resignations.
The Outdated Adage
The policy was revolutionary for its time, massively improving the retail industries’ almost non-existent
customers. The operative words are “for its time.” Customer service standards today have evolved from
the foundation of the “customer is always right” policy to better encapsulate modern ideals.
While businesses should treat customers respectfully, employees no longer need to bow and accede to
every demand. The industry now places more emphasis placed on enthusiasm and charisma than
servitude. A better term for modern standards might be “service with a smile.”
How To Handle Difficult Customers Using Modern Standards
A problematic customer can take some tricky handling to resolve so that both the customer and the
customer service representative are left happy. While employees must serve customers, employers also
must look out for employee needs to ensure good employee management.
Here are some tips you can use if you ever face a toxic customer.
1. Always Lead with Empathy
Place yourself in the shoes of the customer. They are probably frustrated by something relatable or at least understandable. By understanding where they are coming from, you also equip yourself to respond appropriately to their concerns.
A customer is rarely angry specifically at you, the employee. It’s much more likely that their frustrations are aimed at their situation and are just lashing out.
2. Listen Well, Listen Often
It might be tempting to tune out a frustrated customer ranting at you, but this is very counterproductive. If you pay attention to what they say and their body language, you can quickly ascertain how to solve or at least de-escalate the situation. Snubbing a disruptive customer will likely only cause them to make an even bigger scene.
3. Watch Your Language – Both Verbal and Nonverbal
Always be courteous when responding to a visibly frustrated customer. It’s natural to get defensive when you feel threatened but take a breath to center yourself.
Your choice of words and tone of speaking can worsen the situation, so think twice before responding. Even subtle things like posture or facial expressions can project volumes of your thoughts.
4. Communicate Clearly
After assessing the issue, inform the customer about what you can and can’t do to remedy the problem. Explain how long the solution might take or direct the customer to a higher authority if you can.
However, don’t make claims you can’t back up. It might be easier to agree to all their demands, but overpromising can worsen the situation when they find out you can’t deliver. Clear, tangible answers can help diffuse even the hottest tempers.
5. Know When to Draw the Line
Some people just can’t be reasoned with. If you’ve done everything in your power to solve the issue, but the customer or client is still raising a fuss, it’s probably time to ask them to leave. Be polite but firm.
Apologize that you couldn’t solve their issue and inform them that you must return to work.
While it might sound extreme, a disruptive customer can take multiple employees, and spending too long trying to follow unreasonable demands can halt your entire operation.
The Customer Is Not Always Right
You now better understand the history of “the customer is always right” and the more modern way of handling problematic customers. You should now be able to take demanding customers in the future better!