Debunking the Myth: Why 'The Customer Is Always Right' Is Flawed

In the world of business, the familiar mantra, "The customer is always right," has long been employed to assure customers of top-notch service while motivating employees to go the extra mile.
Debunking the Myth | Amwork

However, it's time to overestimate this adage and consider why businesses should reconsider embracing it.

One memorable incident involved a frequent flyer with Southwest Airlines, who became known as the “Pen Pal” due to her persistent stream of complaints after each flight. Her grievances ranged from the airline's unassigned seating policy to the absence of a first-class section, the lack of in-flight meals, the unconventional boarding process, and even the flight attendants' casual attire.

In an amusing twist, her final letter, brimming with complaints, left Southwest's customer relations team momentarily baffled. It eventually landed on the desk of Herb Kelleher, the CEO of Southwest at the time, with a simple note: 'This one's yours.'

In a matter of minutes, Kelleher replied, “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.”

The phrase “The customer is always right” traces its origins back to 1909 when Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of London's renowned Selfridge's department store, coined it. Its purpose was to reassure customers of exceptional service and inspire employees to prioritize customer satisfaction.

However, it's time to say goodbye to this old saying, ironically, because it often leads to poor customer service. Let's look at the five main reasons why “The Customer is always right” is fundamentally wrong.

1: Prioritizing Employee Well-being

Gordon Bethune, a renowned figure in the aviation industry and author of the book “From Worst to First,” successfully transformed Continental Airlines. Unlike the conventional belief that “the customer is always right,” Bethune adopted a different approach to ensure both customers and employees felt valued.

Bethune firmly rejected the notion that the customer's viewpoint should always prevail. In situations where conflicts arose between employees and unruly customers, he consistently sided with his team. He expressed this philosophy as follows:

“When we encounter customers we can't satisfy, our allegiance lies with our employees. They deal with these challenges daily. Purchasing a ticket does not grant the right to mistreat our employees…

We serve over 3 million passengers each month, and inevitably, a few may act unreasonably. When it comes down to it, who would you support: your dedicated employees who contribute to your product daily, or an irate individual demanding a free ticket to Paris because we ran out of peanuts?”

Bethune emphasized the importance of valuing employees, rejecting the idea of treating them as mere serfs. Neglecting to support employees when faced with unruly customers can lead to resentment over even minor issues.

Bethune's approach strikes a balance between prioritizing employees and customers, in contrast to the one-sided “always right” principle. Favoring the customer exclusively, as Bethune points out, can breed discontent among employees.

Despite the fact that there are cases of unsatisfactory work of employees, trying to solve this problem by stating that the client is “always right” turns out to be counterproductive.

2: Empowering Employees to Manage Difficult Customers

Embracing the slogan “The customer is always right” provides abrasive customers with an unfair advantage, as they can demand almost anything based on this premise. This creates added challenges for employees attempting to rein in unruly behavior.

Furthermore, this approach results in abusive individuals receiving better treatment and conditions than their more considerate counterparts. This approach is fundamentally flawed and neglects the importance of fostering positive relationships with well-behaved customers to ensure their return.

3: Recognizing the Value of Good Customer Relations

Contrary to the belief that more customers are always better for business, some customers can have a detrimental impact.

A compelling example comes from Danish IT service provider ServiceGruppen, which proudly shares the following story:

“One of their service technicians faced rude treatment from a customer during a maintenance task. Upon the technician's return to the office, he reported the experience to management. In response, the company promptly terminated the customer's contract.”

Similar to Herb Kelleher's decision to dismiss the persistently complaining passenger at Southwest Airlines, ServiceGruppen's actions were not solely driven by financial considerations. Instead, it was a matter of upholding respect and dignity and ensuring that employees were treated fairly.

4: Elevating Employee Satisfaction for Better Customer Service

Rosenbluth International, a corporate travel agency that has since been acquired by American Express, championed a unique approach. CEO Hal Rosenbluth articulated their philosophy in the book “Put The Customer Second — Put your people first and watch 'em kick butt.”

Rosenbluth's premise is simple: when you prioritize employees, they, in turn, prioritize customers. Placing employees at the forefront of your business strategy leads to a happier workforce. Happy employees are more inclined to provide exceptional customer service for several reasons:

  • Enhanced Empathy: They demonstrate greater concern for others, including customers.
  • Increased Energy: Happy employees possess more vitality and enthusiasm.
  • Positive Attitude: Their happiness makes them more pleasant and engaging when interacting with customers.
  • Heightened Motivation: Contented employees are inherently more motivated to excel in their roles.

Conversely, when a company consistently favors customers at the expense of employees, it sends a clear message:

  • Employees are undervalued.
  • Fair treatment of employees is not a priority.
  • Employees have no right to respect from customers.
  • Employees must tolerate any behavior from customers.

This approach leads to employee disengagement, ultimately undermining the quality of customer service. At this juncture, genuine good service becomes elusive, and customers are often met with superficial courtesy.

5: Recognizing That Some Customers Are Incorrect

Herb Kelleher, the visionary behind Southwest Airlines, shares a similar sentiment, as illustrated in the book “Nuts!” which delves into the airline's success story:

Kelleher emphatically states that his employees come first, even if it means parting ways with certain customers. Contrary to the belief that customers are always right, Kelleher firmly asserts, “No, they are not.” He believes that considering the customer right at all times is a significant betrayal of employees. Occasionally, customers are indeed wrong, and Southwest Airlines does not tolerate customers who mistreat their staff. Instead, they advise such customers to choose another airline.

To emphasize this point, consider an anecdote from Gordon Bethune's book, “From Worst to First”:

A Continental flight attendant once confronted a passenger whose child was wearing a hat adorned with offensive Nazi and KKK emblems. The attendant, understandably uncomfortable, asked the child's father to stow away the hat. The passenger defiantly refused, stating that his child could wear whatever they pleased, regardless of others' sentiments.

The flight attendant sought assistance from the first officer, who cited FAA regulations prohibiting interference with a crew member's duties. The offensive hat was causing discomfort to other passengers and the crew, thereby impeding the flight attendant's responsibilities. The passenger reluctantly complied but voiced strong objections, leading to numerous complaints.

Continental Airlines made earnest efforts to explain their policies and federal air regulations, but the passenger remained obstinate. Even a visit to the executive suite to discuss the matter with Gordon Bethune did not alter his stance. While the airline honored his ticket purchase, it made it clear that rude and offensive behavior was unwelcome.

In summary, it is evident that not all customers are right, and some are, in fact, wrong. Businesses should be prepared to part ways with customers whose behavior is detrimental to their staff and overall operations. Prioritizing employees and their well-being ultimately leads to better customer service and a more harmonious work environment.

Emily Johnson

Emily Johnson


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