When Harry Gordon Selfridge who founded Selfridge’s department store in London originally coined the infamous phrase, “The customer is always right”, he probably had no idea business owners would subscribe to this philosophy for generations to come. Likely, Selfridge’s intent was a figure of speech to imply that the way businesses should treat customer complaints is to put the customer in the drivers seat. Ultimately, if the customer leaves happy, the business succeeds.

On the surface this may seem like a good concept, the idea that the customer can’t be wrong suggests that businesses should go to whatever lengths necessary to ensure the client leaves happy. 

We are the first to agree that the client experience should be of highest priority as a business owner. Making a client feel appreciated and valued is what drives referrals, business growth, and leaves a positive impact on your community. However, saying the customer is always right can be a harmful philosophy to implement as a business owner. Here are a few reasons why. 

1) It forces management to choose between the employee and the customer

When a customer is unhappy, if the employee does not have the authority to correct the mistake, it leaves the problem up to management. Warranted or not, the customer is unhappy with the product or service they received and often direct their complaints at the employee who provided it to them.

As a manager or business owner, this puts you in a tough position because now you must tight rope the line of making the customer happy, while not throwing your employee under the bus. Perhaps the employee did everything right and the customer is hard to please or trying to take advantage of your business. Simply saying “the customer is always right” and giving into their demands is demoralizing to an employee who is working hard every day for your business. It sends the message that their hard work was not good enough. It makes them feel small.

The most valuable asset any business possesses is a dedicated, hard working employee, so the last thing you want them to feel is demoralized.

2) It sets an expectation that is hard to surpass

In business, a happy customer comes from a business exceeding expectations. As a business owner, how do you exceed expectations when you set the expectation as “you can’t can’t be wrong”? This sends the message to the consumer that no matter how they behave, they deserve your product or service. Sometimes, this just isn’t the case.

The business / customer relationship is give and take, it always has been. The customer is paying something in exchange for a product or service. If every customer demands more than what was agreed upon in the exchange, the business simply cannot succeed under that model.

3) You might not want to keep that customer

Some customers are more focused on playing games to take advantage of a business before moving on. Another name for that is mooching. They are not the type of customers you want to have around anyway.

Think about running a car dealership and having someone come by at 8am to test drive a car. They take the keys and say “I’ll be right back.” Then drop it off at 5pm. The next day they do the same thing. For a month straight they do this every weekday. At some point you must ask the question, “are you using this as your daily commuter to work?” 

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So how should a business owner conduct him/herself with an unhappy client? Perhaps, the “customer is always right” should be modified to “the customer should always be listened to”. How many consumer conflicts can be resolved if we simply stopped getting offended or defensive and actually listened to why they are upset in the first place?

Often, this simple act, showing empathy and understanding is all the customer is looking for. A reasonable customer doesn’t expect perfection from a business. They do expect to be treated fairly and receive at a minimum what has been agreed upon. If a customer has a complaint, it is likely that their perception is that they have not received this.

So it starts with a listening ear and giving the benefit of the doubt.

As a business owner, your ability to resolve conflict, whether it is among your employees or customers, is key to the overall success of your business. First recognize that, yes, sometimes customers are wrong, sometimes employees are wrong. Have you spent time truly listening to the customer?

If in fact you believe they are being unreasonable, then place an actual dollar amount on determining what it would take to please them. Will you lose respect with your employees? Will fixing this one issue for them actually create a happy customer for life or will they always create headaches for you? What will you lose in product or time spent by resolving the issue? Do you owe it to the customer to resolve their dispute? What is the ethical response? How will your actions affect future referrals? In addition to all these questions, you should gauge the level of severity. Is this something that could potentially cause bad reviews, bad press, bad PR?

Hopefully these questions provide some considerations to you as a business owner as you attempt to resolve customer complaints. Remember to focus on value, exceeding expectations and providing a listening ear and you’ll be well set up for success.