A New Paradigm: Rethinking 'The Customer Is Always Right'

If you’ve spent any amount of time in a customer service role, whether in traditional retail service or in tech support, you’ve heard the phrase “The customer is always right.”

We believe it’s time to shift the customer service paradigm again: from “The customer is always right” to “The customer always deserves to be helped.”

Here’s why.

What does "The customer is always right" mean?

The intent behind the phrase “The customer is always right” isn’t necessarily bad. When most people use this phrase, they’re using it to highlight a company’s responsibility to make customers feel valued and important.

If you’re a chef and a customer sends back a dish because they think it’s too salty, you can’t just go out and argue with them that you used the right amount of salt and you’re a trained culinary expert, so you know better.

Well, you technically could do that, but it’s bad for business, and the origin of the phrase gives us background into why.

Where did "The customer is always right" originate?

The origin of this phrase is disputed. Some attribute it to Harry Gordon Selfridge of the London-based department store Selfridges, while others attribute it to John Wanamaker of the also eponymous Wanamaker’s department store. Still, others say it was first said by Marshall Field, another department store founder (Marshall Field and Company), or by — to pull the phrase out of the realm of retailers — hotelier César Ritz (yes, of Ritz-Carlton fame).

It’s more likely they all coalesced around the idea at about the same time, just in different ways. Regardless of who originated it, the introduction of the idea that the customer is always right marked a shift in the customer service industry.

Before the introduction of this new customer service mentality in the late 19th century, power rested with merchants, who could (and did) sell products in any condition and with any ingredient, safe or not, usually offering no recourse to consumers who were harmed by their products.

“The customer is always right” made it permissible for customers to expect (and rightfully demand) more consideration and respect in their dealings with merchants of all kinds.

Companies refocused on improving customer satisfaction, understanding that strategies like designing experiences around customer preferences and offering replacements or refunds for defective products would build customer loyalty, which would make their businesses more competitive and profitable.

Even if Selfridge, Wanamaker, and the others devised this focus on customer satisfaction in order to improve their bottom lines, it’s still remarkable. And it’s quite revolutionary, considering it happened at the height of the Gilded Age, a time when robber barons essentially ruled every corner of the industry.

It’s arguable that “The customer is always right” didn’t just spark a shift in paradigm; it birthed the concept of customer service as we know it.

So it’s with a great amount of respect for its impact that I say this: I think it’s time to shift the customer service paradigm again. Our mentality should change from “The customer is always right” to “The customer always deserves to be helped.”

From winning to helping

The problem with this sentiment in the 21st century is that it flattens customer service interactions into transactional, adversarial exercises focused on deriving value rather than building relationships.

It doesn’t allow for situations in which there’s a lot of nuance. In the time of ever-evolving technology and complicated billing models, that describes the bulk of interactions between customers and support teams.

When we can’t see past the one-dimensional mentality of “The customer is always right,” we create rigid and frustrating experiences for customers in which we’re trying to make them happy instead of trying to understand their needs in the moments we have with them. It doesn’t acknowledge that there will be times when we can’t make a customer happy.

The truth is that customers are neither right nor wrong. They’re just in need of help. And companies aren’t right or wrong either. They’re just seeking to fill a customer’s need with their product.

If we reframe the question from “How do I make this customer happy even though they’re wrong?” to “How do I help this customer in the way they need to be helped right now?,” we’re giving our customer service teams the space they need to make customers whole.

3 reasons why customers always deserve to be helped

When we take right and wrong out of the equation, our motivations change. We’re no longer trying to win the interaction — but instead to make it meaningful and useful for our customers.

This mentality does require an intentional shift in how we think about customer interactions and how we approach finding solutions that will meet their needs, particularly when there’s a conflict between what customers want or need and what we can provide.

1. A customer’s feelings always come from somewhere

Perhaps the main reason why “The customer is always right” is inadequate is that it leeches context from our interactions with customers and prevents us from building relationships with them.

Customers are at their most vulnerable when they’re asking for help, and they’re often coming to us with strong emotions underpinning their requests: anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, grief, hope, and joy.

Different customers express their needs in different ways — we’ve all had customers who’ve started a conversation by angrily demanding compensation for a wrong, who have pleaded for an exception to a policy, or who have anxiously asked for an immediate fix to a bug they’ve barely explained to us.

Basically, they’re not always feeling their best or on their best behavior. When we’re focused on the ways a customer might be right or wrong, we risk missing why they’re making their request.

What if they were expecting our product to fix a problem, but it didn't and, as a result, the customer is in a worse situation than they were before?

It doesn’t mean the customer was wrong or that our product was wrong — it’s an unfortunate misalignment of expectations. The focus shouldn’t be on blame in this situation; it should be on making them whole, and the only way to do that is to give up on winning the conversation and build a relationship with them instead.

A refund would probably go a long way in restoring them, but they may also need help finding a better solution to their original problem, even if it’s not with your company. Nothing creates a lifelong, loyal customer like truly meeting their needs when you have the opportunity to do so.

2. Customers are taking their cues from us

The other unfortunate byproduct of “The customer is always right” is the idea that it gives customers a certain amount of license to abuse the concept in order to game whatever systems we have in place to protect our business interests.

I’m not arguing that it’s not true — again, anyone who’s ever worked in any kind of retail has dealt with customers trying to magically compound discounts or invent product malfunctions to get free stuff.

However, I do think that mentality itself exaggerates our perception of how often customers are taking advantage of it by creating an adversarial relationship between them and us as customer service professionals.

The vast majority of customers I’ve dealt with were simply trying to avail themselves of actual deals my company was offering or trying to operate within the billing and refund policies we established in our terms of service.

But the mentality that the customer is always right has become so ubiquitous that it’s often a customer’s only fallback when they run into a company’s strict interpretation of its own policies, which customer service teams are usually tasked with enforcing.

And if you’re the customer service representative trying to explain to a customer why they aren’t right about a particular policy, how are you going to feel about that conversation if all the frustrated customer can say in defense is, “Well, what happened to the customer always being right?!”

The age of the internet means that customers have a huge number of options to choose from when it comes to literally anything they need, which means the customer service experience we provide is what differentiates us from our competitors.

Helping customers meet their needs should matter more than consistent enforcement of policy, especially if customers are trying to do the right thing. If they are following the rules we set by, say, buying a product directly from us rather than a reseller and proving it by registering their warranty with us, then we shouldn’t quibble about policy if they need a replacement part a few days after their warranty expires.

Customers are taking their cues from us when they ask us for help, and we should take our cues from them when we’re providing it.

3. Customers may have needs we can’t meet

As I explained in our first example, sometimes our products turn out not to be a fit for customers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that our product needs to change — in fact, if we try to shoehorn a feature into a product where it doesn’t fit, we’ll probably end up frustrating (or worse, alienating) customers for whom our product is a good match.

Also, abusive customers exist. Their feelings do come from somewhere, and we can understand that and acknowledge that their feelings are valid while still setting and keeping boundaries that will protect both them and our customer service teams.

Does either scenario mean that these customers don’t deserve to be helped? Not at all. In fact, I’ve sometimes found that the opportunity for future relationships is even greater with these customers than it is with customers I’ve had cursory interactions with.

Not always, and maybe not even most of the time — but there’s enough of an opportunity that it’s worth putting in the effort to treat these customers how we’d like to be treated in the same situation: with firmness, but also with respect and consideration.

If we avoid reducing our conversations with them to judgments about right and wrong, we can lay a foundation for a more trusting, productive relationship in the future.

How to remain customer-centric regardless of who is “right”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if a customer is right or wrong in any given scenario because customer service isn’t about determining fault or winning an argument. Customer service is about meeting a customer where they are and then getting them where they need to go, even if their destination is different from ours.

“The customer is always right” served us well for a very long time, but now it’s time to put it to rest. We need a new paradigm, one that prioritizes meaningful solutions and relationships over judgemental, transactional interactions.

Let this be our new mantra: The customer always deserves to be helped.

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