March 20, 2008

5 Reasons Why "The Customer Is Always Right" Is Wrong The "Chief Happiness Officer" gives his encouragement to the legions of 'Customer Service' workers who either (1) don't know what they're doing (2) don't care or (3) are being paid to say NO. I'm a customer and I do NOT endorse this message.

Considering how BAD most "Customer Service" is these days, this commentary seems so wrong-headed. Of course, there are some customers who ARE wrong, and it often just isn't possible, reasonable or good business to placate them, but insisting on getting a fair deal and having your basic rights respected is NOT being a "difficult customer". Right? So, the Customer is STILL always right, because you don't want the people who are always wrong as customers. End of rant.

  • I don't know if you're being tongue-in-cheek with this wendell, but I have to disagree. Standing on the other side of the service counter, I a) DO know what I am doing (most of the time) b)DO care about my work and service and c)are being paid to perform a service, not kiss your ass. Customers CAN BE wrong. In the course of working for the last 7 years in a library, I've had: 1. Patrons who insist on eating and drinking in the library, throwing their rubbish willy-nilly, thus attracting rats, cockroaches and ants; 2. Patrons who try to bully us into waiving their fines, even to the point of holding OUR library books hostage until we agree to their demands; 3. Patrons who stalk other female patrons with camera-phone in hand, and when we catch him and our boss politely evicts him after a long interview, hangs around outside the main door in order to cast murderous glares at me and my boss when we come out; (I glared right back at him - I'm a BAD BAD service person, aren't I?) 4. External patrons who are not part of the university insisting they have rights to our wireless network, and blame US for not knowing our jobs well enough to give them what they deem is their right. 5. Etcetera, etcetera - I could go on the whole night on this....I have been shouted at, accused of being stupid, uncooperative, ignorant and other insulting adjectives. The bad customer is definitely the minority in my otherwise pleasant working environment, but boy do they stick in the mind. So no, the customer is NOT always right. Being both a service person AND a customer, I can heartily agree that there are bad service people AND bad customers. So don't go tarring us with the same brush.
  • See, none of this applies to Europe, where they have a simplified concept of "customer service" in that the customer is never right, and they aren't so much "customers" as "the enemy". *sends positive vibes to Queen Neddy*
  • I think that "the customer is always right" is really meant to mean "always let the customer think he is right".
  • After r'ing tfa, though, I do see where he's coming from. Nothing frustrated me more when I worked retail than the idea that I had to stand back and be treated like crap by anyone who was on a power trip. Except when I would follow company policy and tell a customer "no", only to have them demand to see my manger, who always, always got to tell them "yes". It didn't make me treat customers worse, though.
  • Well I think we've discovered, yet again, that absolute statements are always wrong. To be honest, yes, I know that dealing with loopy customers is bad, and no you shouldn't accede to their every demand. But I've just arrived in the US after living in Europe for a while and... as the Capt says, it's a night and day difference here. When I go into a shop, the people there act like they want me to buy things. And after I buy things, they act like they want me to come back. When I have to phone up the phone company or something, the person on the other end of the phone doesn't act like they're trying to cheat me. In fact, and this is really amazing here, they're frequently very helpful and try to solve my problem so that I don't have to keep calling back. I think the statement 'we must protect our employees from crazy or dishonest customers' is self-evidently true. But it seems like most customer service people I interact with in the UK are doing this peremptory attack thing, just in case you're crazy or dishonest. Phone help people brush you off or try to convince you you're just imagining things. Shop staff often do everything they can to get you out of the door so you won't mess up the displays. Service people in positions of power, such as ticket collectors, bank workers or, yes, library staff, often actively bully you. Any time you deal with somebody from a large company, you are forced to go in with the base assumption that they're going to try and use their rules and policies to cheat you. The thing is, I don't think I'm a bad or unreasonable customer. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that I'm polite, often friendly, and I understand that service staff don't have limitless power and super-human abilities. But it's so nice not to have to dig in for a fight every time I want to go to the bank or buy a microwave.
  • Its a free economy thing The statement "The customer is always right" was made in a time when there was margin to be made from the customer, nowadays competitive pricing pressure means that being a "customer" is more like standing in a queue outside a nightclub. You can still get better service, but you have to pay for it. That said, give me crappy service and if there is an equally affordable alternative then you can forget about me as a customer, and your tip.
  • I liked the post, if only because I'm tired of working with students who think of themselves as customers (and therefore "always right") rather than as students (and therefore in a position where I have genuine authority over them). I'm teaching now at a school that does not encourage students to think of themselves as customers, thank goodness, but my last position was at a school where students were promised good customer service (up to the point where the administration paid to have representatives from Disney come over and teach them how to give students the "Disney Experience" in customer service). I got demands like "I paid (x number of dollars) to take this class, I deserve an A!" That gets old fast.
  • Hey, Alnedra! As a former museum employee, I've gone through those Top 5 many times over! I actually had a particularly unpleasant woman tell me, in all seriousness, that she was going to call the ACLU because I was violating her right to have an open water bottle next to an original Durer print. But, on the other hand? Although the examples cited in the article are dead-on, I think that it would be far, far too easy for businesses to see it and go completely the other way, which wouldn't be very good, either. The customer may not always be right, but neither is he always wrong. I doubt that most people in service industries are going to be bothered evaluating each case on its own merits. Maybe there really is no happy medium.
  • Meredithea, I totally agree that paying one's tuition doens't merit an automatic A. But I also disagree with the stance that most college instructors seem to take: that paying one's tuition doesn't even merit being afforded every opportunity to earn that A if you need any kind of guidance or assistance even slightly outside the norm to master the material.
  • The customer is always right. They are, however, often misinformed. It's the CS job to inform them without pissing them off too much.
  • I am a retail manager. Now and then I get customers who are angry, uptight, and want something for free. One mis-heard the price (we don't mark our prices, they have to ask), and then he wanted it for what he thought he heard. When he asked what I was going to do for him, I broke into a big grin and said, "Sir, I will sell you the kilt in your hand for the price it's marked with a smile and a handshake." He was not pleased. Also, what Neddy and Dreddy said. Dreadnought, where are you in the States? Let me know if you come to Seattle!
  • While the piece itself is heavy-handed, #2 is ridiculously OTM, and, to my mind, the #1 problem with customer service, both for the customers and for the workers. An air of entitlement makes you a tool, no matter which side of the 800 number you're on. It should be about problem-solving.
  • I'm a part-time teacher. If my customer is right, I give the kid an "A". This doesn't happen too often.
  • Its a free economy thing ... The statement "The customer is always right" was made in a time when there was margin to be made from the customer I kind of see a broad, cultural thing happening here, which can still be put in 'market' kind of terms. Sellers 'compete' using customer service as a selling point. If all the sellers are providing terrible customer service, then you don't have to work too hard in this department. In the UK, I would posit, a given seller basically knows that the customer isn't going to get treated any better anywhere else, so he or she doesn't have to be nice. Why do I say that this is not a 'pure' market phenomenon? Because it relies on intangible cultural expectations. It's quite similar to the pricing structure for electronic goods, which vary greatly in price from place to place. If every seller is selling for a high price, and customers expect a high price, then that defines 'what the market will bear'. In addition to this, I think that poor customer service may very well set up a vicious circle. When I phone up, say, the hardware tech support people for my laptop, I know I have to get all my ducks in a row beforehand, because I know they're going to try and fight to get me off the phone. But I also know that, very probably, the tech support people have developed this attitude to their customers because they're always dealing with these apparently unreasonable people who, you know, start the conversation already prepared for an argument and just will not get off the phone. On the subject of the University thing... well I've been on both sides of that divide, and as with the rest of this subject, I think there needs to be an expectation of respect and cooperation from both sides. Trouble-makers and scroungers should be dealt with like the exceptions that they are. Everybody finds mark-grubbing students with a sense of entitlement annoying to have to deal with. But the opposite is also true. When the university admin turns against the students, and I've seen it happen, it can make the students feel utterly powerless and alone. If a student gets an A they don't deserve by going over the instructor's head, then that produces a small crack in the institution's reputation for rigour. But if some secretary kicks a student out of the university because he wants to lighten his administrative load, then that student's whole career is compromised in a very real way. At least, in those places where an ethos of customer-service is promoted, the students get some ability to argue their case. It's not a good ethos, but people promote it for a reason, and that very reason is that they still recall the 'bad old days' that are still around in many universities.
  • Incidentally, I figured out a neat psychological trick for dealing mark-grubbing students: tell them what you'd tell any student, but make it sound sneaky. 'Absolutely, I want you to get a First! I totally agree with you that all this 'giving out marks' BS is just The Man trying to get in the way of you playing with neat ideas and learning cool things. But you know what? We can be on the same side on this. I'll teach you a bunch of cheap, dirty tricks that will fool your examiner into thinking that you wrote a better essay than you actually did. Cheap, dirty tricks, like proper footnoting, elegant structure and forceful argument. Once you master these sly dodges, then that will totally free us up to have fun talking about the cool stuff you want to learn about.' It's important, by the way, to put the student's initial concern in a positive light. When a student is grubbing for marks they're in a sort of psychological weak spot. They tend to feel guilty for being greedy (this sounds awful) and you can kind of exploit that guilt for your own ends. If you get mad at them, they get defensive and think of all the reasons why they deserve an A (they paid all this money in tuition, they need to make a living after they graduate). But if you tell them that they're angry about their low mark because it's a trivial impediment to learning they usually grasp at this with both hands and start to think of all the reasons why, yes, they do want to learn about all the cool things you want to teach them. I've known students, at times, to internalise this quite deeply. Then you hit them with the one-two punch: of course they're being sneaky! They're being sneaky because they're a sly fox who's going to completely beat the system by cunningly leaning all the stuff you wanted to teach them. It's funny, when I write it here it seems completely transparent and fanciful, but in practice it really seems to work. jb and I are now in New Haven for the year. Sorry, we're on the wrong coast for you, Weezel!
  • As a lawyer, I often get clients (or used to, before I saw the light and went in-house) who were convinced that they were right, and were looking to the lawyer for validation. And, of course, they were most often wrong -- which is no fault of theirs, they simply didn't have the training to see it. However, the business being what it is, I couldn't give in to the idea that "the customer is always right". You do what you can to finesse the situation, to massage them back into reality, but most often, when they had an idea in mind, you could not shake them of it, no matter how wrong it was. Their perception of how right you were, with its direct correspondence to a) their ideas of where they stand with regard to the law, and b) them paying their bills -- yeah. In-house. One client. No billings. "Respect". Another world, another world...
  • If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right a customer.
  • I spent the morning the other day on the hone with a catering firm who had thought it was a dandy idea to set up their main banquet tble directly in front of my office door. Instead of trying to MAKEit right, though, the manager wasted endless balloon juice trying to make the case that he WAS right. Instead of saying, "I'm sorry we didn't take your office into consideration, but since it's so fifficult to change the setup in the time we have, would you mind if we eft it there just until the end of this event? Instead he kept saying that I shouldn't be bothered by it, that his hands were tied because that's where his client wanted it (as if I have to provide for HIS clients wishes), how it was far eough away fro my door for the Fire Department's guidelines so I should't be complaining, and on and on and on. He knew he was wrong; I knew he was wrong, and the only way for him to make it rght was to admit he had made a mistake. And he simply refused to do it.
  • Dear customer who is right. You're not, actually. Love, Another customer who actually wants to buy something.
  • (Oh, and this applies to y'all A-seeking students. Your paper wasn't that good. And your getting a deadline extension (for everyone, I must admit) 24 hours before due date makes my staying up all night pointless. I know, I should get some kneepads and deal with it.)
  • Lara above has the right idea. Having worked a few retail jobs, I feel the rule could be stated more accurately like this: "even if you're shafting the customer with a high price and shoddy product, having him 'win' or 'be right' on a couple of points unrelated to the profit on the sale will get the sucker on your side. Maybe even coming back to be shafted again."
  • > He knew he was wrong; I knew he was wrong, and the only way for him to make it rght was to admit he had made a mistake. And he simply refused to do it. This is when I get obsessive about a written apology. I'm not really pushed about compensation, but I want people to acknowledge fault. To the extent of asking my neighbour for such (I know it's not reasonable, but at the end of the day he was wrong and I was right to complain... etc. etc.)
  • I think one problem is the "offshoring" of some service centers. The scripted question session has driven me up the wall, though I'm usually pretty calm about asking for help. When Dell first went offshore, we had a problem with one of our computers. We'd call them, they'd tell us to do things we'd already done. we'd say we'd done that and it didn't work, but they'd ask us to do it again, and so on. Once we'd gone through the script, their system would tell them that the problem was solved, so they'd close the ticket. It never solved the problem, do matter how many times we brought up the issue, so we'd have to start over and over until I just bought a new computer since I couldn't stand it anymore. Stuff like that can make one a bit anxious about talking to another support person for a completely different issue, but the Dell folks were just doing what they'd been instructed to do. On the other hand, I've done a sort of customer service, except that the "customers" were the sales force for an Hitachi subsidiary in the US. I had a degree of leeway in what I could agree to, but I had to cleeve to the corporate accounting standards, which the field thought should be optional. I remember going to a sales meeting and being interrupted when talking to another "customer" by a salesman who said "Pat, do you know what I like about you?" I said, "no". He said "nothing." I also remember trying to get a million $$ mainframe computer shipped to one of our most important customers while the admin who normally did that was on vacation. The customer had scheduled downtime for the installation on the expected delivery date, and I knew that the shipping supervisor would need more information, so I gave him all the written details separately. When it didn't ship, I went to talk to him, and he said he had forgotten. So, yes, there lots of levels of potential failure when you're asking for help, some of which you may not have even thought about, and some of which are so far from the "customer" orientation that the whole system can fall to its knees. But, blaming the person who answers your call is certainly a losing proposition.
  • I worked as a phone sex operator in the 80s, in the beginning of my working life, and by way of contrast to friends who were working retail in more genteel situations, we were advised to assume the customer was a lying sack of shit - which he often was. His Visa started with 5, his Amex began 371234, his Mastercard started with a 4. That the customer was always wrong, until his credit card was proven viable, was a given. (The cardholder was called at home or at work and made to okay the charge before the charge went through to the bank, to reduce chances of charge-back. Frequency of charge-back made Visa and Amex and Mastercard question the legitimacy of a business). Few customers charged back, no matter how badly they were treated. Of course, some of them were calling to be treated badly. I never could work politely on phones after that experience. It was hard to be a receptionist and react politely to assholes hollering, "just get him now!" when they sounded just like the dudes who'd moan, "Can you get me an blonde? A nineteen-year-old blonde? With one leg? Yeah, my credit's good. You don't have to check it! Don't put me on hold!" Years later I worked as reference librarian, and it was nice to regard the customer, now patron, as right.
  • TUM: I totally agree with you. I tell my students that I'm willing to work just as hard as they are to earn the A: extra drafts, meetings (even off campus if they need them), whatever. But I also tell them that paying tuition gives them the right to access the knowledge, not to the A. Dreadnought: I'll have to try that! Right now, I'm in a department where about 1/3 (or fewer) of our majors are thinking grad school and 2/3 (or more) are thinking business or non-profit type jobs after graduation, so I finesse it that way. "Sure you don't need to know how to footnote for a job, but this'll prove you can learn the rules of the job and write good business documents."
  • "Sure you don't need to know how to footnote for a job, but this'll prove you can learn the rules of the job and write good business documents." My line, about this, goes roughly as follows: 'Yes, I realize that you don't want to be an academic, but the reason we teach you to footnote is twofold: firstly, people hire our graduates because we've trained them to be researchers. Research skills are inherently useful to many organisations, and they're also inherently transferable. One of the central skills of the researcher is attribution, of which footnoting is our preferred method, but if you learn to footnote you can take that basic skill and do any kind of attribution without a great deal of difficulty. 'But this leads us to the second, and perhaps more important, reason we teach you to footnote: footnoting is an ancient form of 'metadata linking and embedding'. Metadata embedding is one of the core concepts behind the World Wide Web, behind the Semantic Web, behind a whole host of other systems that are going to define the way we communicate in the future. This is not information technology of the kind that you have to re-learn every five years as it completely changes; this is the art underlying all of these technologies that will allow you to use them with fluency and poise. Remember: it's not a coincidence that all these internet technologies were developed by academics. 'You see, fortunately for somebody like me who's in the teaching business, footnoting is not a skill you can just learn. Footnoting is an art you have to master, much like the art of writing itself. In order to do it well, you have to practice, make mistakes, and have somebody correct you. And fortunately for me, we, in the academic world, are best practised and leading experts at teaching this essential skill because, unlike everybody else, we've been doing it for many, many years.'
  • But I also tell them that paying tuition gives them the right to access the knowledge, not to the A. Yes, that's exactly what I was trying to say, only less eloquently!