The Customer Is Always Right: The Verdict

You’ve probably heard someone say that the customer is always right, especially if you’ve had experience in customer service or retail. But have you ever thought about what the statement implies? Who came up with this philosophical note? Does this hold true 24/7? Let’s reveal some of these answers.

The origin of “The customer is always right”

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 establish a customer-centric approach. He wanted to make sure all customer complaints were heard, recorded, and resolved so that the customers could keep coming back for good customer service.

 customer service done right

He was successful in raising the bar for customer satisfaction as a result of which people began shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. Probably considered radical at the time, Selfridges went an extra mile to guarantee good service. He encouraged shoppers to just browse, advising the store attendants to assist customers if they needed help. The business model followed one simple mandate: Operate under the assumption that the customer is always right. Soon, more and more businesses followed suit as they observed a rise in happy customers. 

There are many variations to this philosophy which include “le client n’a jamais tort” (the customer is never wrong), the slogan of César Ritz. The Swiss hotelier, famously known as the founder of the Ritz Carlton hotel said, “If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked”. This variation also found its way to Germany where it was believed that “the customer is king“. Even Japan adopted the motto of “okyakusama wa kamisama desu” meaning “the customer is a god”.  But how significant is this phrase for your customer service team? Does it really improve customer experience? Is it really true in the first place?

Is it true that the customer is always right?

What were they thinking, over a century ago, giving the customer so much power? Have you ever stopped to ask the consequences of this motto?

It dates back to an era where customers were increasingly being given the power of choice. If people needed to buy things, they no longer had just one place to buy from. That’s when Selfridge and Field realized that they had to retain their customers and keep them coming back for something more.

unreasonable customers

They were determined that there weren’t any unreasonable customers or bad customers, there were just customers waiting to be heard and taken care of.

In the age of Caveat emptor aka ‘buyer beware’, customers were held responsible for their purchases, therefore 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 the risk associated with investing in their products, all they did was naturally choose to visit the department store again. 

By delivering exceptional customer experience, not only did Selfridges garner customer loyalty, but it also nurtured customer advocates to recommend the store for all things you might need. But how far does this philosophy take entrepreneurs? What does your customer really want?

Does “The customer is always right” stand true 24/7?

When Field or Selfridge came up with the phrase, it’s possible that they didn’t mean for it to be taken literally. Selfridge and Field believed that taking customers for their word and leaving no room for deception or cheating would differentiate their department store from the cutthroat businesses of the time. 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.

customer feedback is key

Especially with social media gaining ground, customers have all the power to voice their opinions. A tweet can start trending in no time and business owners are left to make up for missed opportunities and bad customer experiences over a short span of time.

The French adaptation of the phrase (le client n’a jamais tort) denoted the customer is never wrong. But the idea is as 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. 

A Forbes research found that a customer is not always right. [1]

An attitude that believes otherwise can negatively impact the efforts put in by the customer support team. The fact is you are likely to meet a lot of unreasonable customers, interacting with your customer support team. These customers might be frustrated, hard to handle, and despite your team’s best efforts, a resolution might not always be available. According to the phrase in debate, if you happen to favor this set of customers, you could potentially lose on your customer experience experts.

The customer is always right: What does it mean today?

Despite the debate, we can’t afford to dismiss the idea completely. Studies increasingly point to customer experience having the largest influence on buying decisions. Businesses are remembered for how they make customers feel, and with multiple channels of communication made available to us, everyone can choose a global platform to share how they feel. It doesn’t matter if the customer is right or wrong, they have the power to go viral. The bottom line, the customers have the power and it’s on you to acknowledge their pain points.

Today, with nearly all communication becoming virtual, customer sentiment is even harder to gauge and monitor. While the customers’ needs might not be your only priority, customers deserve to be heard 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. Here are 3 ways to respond in line with your company value of “The customer is always right”:

  1. Be empathetic: Let your customers know you value their opinion. Get acquainted with your customer journey to understand why they do what they do. Identify the opportunities so you may overcome any existing challenges.
    empathetic customer service


  2. Be proactive: Empower your support teams to identify the gaps in customer service. Enable a seamless customer experience by anticipating the needs of your customers to help them find answers to questions they might have.
    proactive customer service


  3. Personalization is key: Your customers are unique and so are their needs. They expect tailor-made solutions. Make sure you offer customized solutions across different touchpoints in the customer journey. Share clear and polite messages even if there isn’t a solution available to their query.

    personalized customer service

The role of customer service has changed post the pandemic. Customer experience teams play an integral role in promoting customer retention and customer loyalty. Click here to learn about the best practices in customer experience.

The customer is always right- What do you think?

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 of entitlement on the part of customers or dismissal/negligence on the part of businesses? We’d love to hear what you think!


Originally published on May 16, 2017. Updated on Dec 07, 2021.


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4 thoughts on “The Customer Is Always Right: The Verdict

  1. In the world of software development and support, in the arena of “experts”, shouldn’t it be delineated such that the customer “expert” is right when defining business objectives because they know their business, and the software “expert” is right when describing software functionality because they know the software, and the ‘software analyst / developer” is right in deciding how to best code / implement a change.

    To me, it all has to be relative to the function / expertise of the individual?

    Yet I must agree that in support, how do you tell a customer who is adamant on a specific software change (to your software), that their way of implementing it may be detrimental to the system and end-user (and your reputation)?

    As an example, customer says “please provide a drop-list of items for the user to select one value from”.

    Suggested response is, I have had a look at your data and there are 100,000 entries. How about popping out to a search screen with multiple filter options instead?

    so, yep, would be keen to know in this instance

    Answer? Please implement as we have asked. “The Customer Is always right”. Implying, we are paying for this. Just do as you are told.

    Rock and a hard place? The reputation of the product vs the loss of customer and/or worse, the customer dissing your product.

    Result, if you continue to try and explain you reasons, the customer disses you, goes to your boss and refuses to deal with you (personally) in the future.

    1. You’re absolutely right! Customers might not always have the expertise to demand features that would make sense for the product (software). There can even be direct conflicts of interest. Rock and a hard place, indeed. If you’re interested in reading our thoughts on how to say ‘no’, do check out our blog post:

  2. Informative blog! We at Dear Customers Australia believe that the customer isn’t always right. The quote “The customer is always right” is a good way of explaining the importance of good customer service but shoudn’t be taken literally.

    In Australia there have been many cases of abuse from customers towards hospitality and retail workers. Just because customers are crucial for any business or service, does not justify any disrespectful behavour. Workers want to provide excellent customer service and customers want their needs and expectations satisfied. We believe it is important that there is mutual respect and consideration between customers and employees. This would minimise cases of abuse and customer dissatisfaction.
    – J.L