Is the customer always right?

You’ve probably heard someone tell you that the customer is always right, especially if you’ve had experience in customer support or retail. But have you ever thought about what the statement implies? Have you ever wondered what could have possibly prompted someone to come up with such an intense philosophy?

Though it’s unclear who coined the exact phrase ‘the customer is always right’ first, the idea was advocated around the turn of the 20th century by Marshall Field and his protégé Harry Gordon Selfridge, who later went on to start the wildly successful Selfridges chain of stores across the UK. When Selfridge came out of retirement to open the first Selfridges store in London, the first thing he wanted was to make sure customers were provided with the exceptional service he was used to seeing at Field’s.

With the bar for how customers were treated being raised, people began shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. Probably considered radical at the time, Selfridges even encouraged shoppers to just browse, advising the store attendants to assist customers if they needed help. All they had was one simple mandate: operate under the assumption that the customer is always right. Soon, more and more businesses started seeing the merit of the idea and began affording their customers absolute authority.

But why?

What were they thinking – over a century ago – giving the customer so much power? They were just seeing things clearly. It was an era where customers were increasingly being given the power of choice, and people no longer had just one place to buy from the things they needed. Selfridge and Field realised that they had to give the customer something to come back to. They stuck to the philosophy that if they took care of their customers, everything else will take care of itself.

In an age where ‘buyer beware’ was a common caveat and customers were held responsible for their purchases, making the customer feel valued was the ultimate differentiator. When someone walked into a Selfridges, they didn’t have to worry about what they were getting themselves into and they naturally chose to go there again. By making them feel cared for, not only would Selfridges gain a loyal customer for life, it was also likely that their store would be recommended to others without hesitation.

But what if the customer is wrong?

customer is always right

Nobody’s right all the time; and, if you’re going to say God, I’ve got two words for you – Unicorn Frappucino? No judgement here, but clearly someone up there was having an off day when He let that one through the filters.

When Field or Selfridge came up with the phrase, it’s possible that they didn’t mean for it to be taken literally. It’s likely that they were trying to make customers feel heard and welcome. So it isn’t very fair of us, in this day and age, to take such a sweeping statement at face value.

Many languages of the world have their own variations of the phrase – the customer is never wrong (le client n’a jamais tort – French); the customer is king (der Kunde ist König – German); the customer is a god (okyakusama wa kamisama desu – Japanese). But the idea, as ever, is controversial as it is popular. As early as 1914, people began realizing the possibility of fraud and dishonesty that such policies (when enforced literally) might invite. Thus began a debate that continues to date [are they right, are they wrong?].

So, is the customer right or wrong? Selfridge and Field likely meant that taking customers seriously and never letting them feel deceived or cheated would differentiate their stores from the cutthroat businesses of the time. Their stores had policies to that effect – making sure their customers felt heard – and it certainly paid off.

So what does it mean today?

Despite all the debate, we can’t afford to dismiss the idea offhand. Studies increasingly point to customer experience becoming the largest influence on buying decisions. Businesses are remembered for how they make customers feel, and with social media invading every corner of our lives, everyone has a global platform to be heard. It no longer matters if the customer is right or wrong, they have the power to go viral. As a business, even if you don’t do the wrong thing every step of the way, something as little as a dainty little ditty could be your undoing.

Today, with nearly all communication becoming virtual, feelings are even harder to gauge and be respectful of. Businesses today have so many channels the customer can reach them through, and ironically, not nearly enough ways to make them feel heard. But while the customer needn’t be put on a pedestal, they deserve to be heard out without the assumption that they don’t know what they’re talking about. They deserve the respect of being treated as an equal – as anyone would treat someone they know.

Speaking of right or wrong, where do you stand?

In a world where it’s as simple as breathing for anyone to have an opinion and an unlimited audience to voice it to, what do you think it means for the customer to always be right? What are the consequences to entitlement on the part of customers or dismissal/negligence on the part of businesses? We’d love to hear what you think!