Why is the Customer Always Right?


Yes – the customer is ALWAYS right. Well, maybe not literally, but for the deeper cultural meaning that the phrase represents, yes. I know, groundbreaking, right?  You can spare yourself the 7-minute read on customer service if you were looking for reassurance to go ahead and give that customer the benefit of the doubt….or on the flip-side, if you were wondering if it was ok to tell that customer to shove it :), well, that’s probably not the best idea. Take a deep breath – kill ‘em with kindness.   It goes a long way in building your brand. And if you’re able to flip that 1-star review into a 5-star, it’s an added bonus, especially to your top-line revenue. Your brand’s online reputation on sites like Google Business, Yelp and even socially, like Facebook, directly correlates to your brand’s trust.     

In the digital, review-driven era we live in, every half star matters.

We all do it, right?  Pull out our phones to check and see the reviews on that new Mexican spot downtown before we decide to dine, or look to see what our peers are saying about that field service provider before booking. And generally, we can trust our peers’ feedback to be pretty spot on.   Now, don’t get me started on how Yelp’s algorithms work or don’t work, and how the paid profile for businesses is a modern-day mob ransom (we’ll save this for another discussion), but as I mentioned earlier, every half star matters.  Seriously.

The Customer is Always Right. Just ask Harvard.

Harvard University conducted a study in 2016 that concluded every half-star on Yelp yields a 5-9% increase in top-line revenue.  Let’s do some quick math. Say your business is bringing in about $500k a year, with a 4-star rating on Yelp – You’re only a half star away from another $45k to the top-line and a full star away from $90k!  Not to mention review sites have only grown in popularity. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to think every half star today could be worth closer to 7-11%. Regardless, adding an extra $100k a year in revenue never hurt anybody except maybe Biggie Smalls, “Mo Money Mo Problems”!  If you don’t get the reference, go listen to the song, right now. 

The Customer is Always Right’ – Who Said it First?  

History gives combined credit to Harry Gordon Selfridge of the UK, John Wanamaker of Philadelphia and Marshall Field of Chicago. No one knows for sure who coined the phrase first, but customers quickly caught on and flocked to their department stores.  Now, they never intended for the phrase to literally mean the customer was always right. Instead, it was to be a mindset that the customer was special, and should be treated accordingly. This was a radical shift from the ‘Caveat Emptor’ days, which was common practice in the early 1900s.  ‘Caveat Emptor’, or better known as “Let the Buyer Beware”, puts all of the responsibility on the consumer. Once the purchase is made, the seller is not obligated to help in any way.

Portrait of Harry Gordon Selfridge, father of the customer service phrase "the customer is always right"
Harry Goon Selfridge circa 1910

Selfridge, Wanamaker and Marshall Field all understood the power of customers and brand equity.   In other words, it’s better to trust customers and take the small losses than to get a bad reputation for being mean and having poor customer service.  

The True Meaning of Customer Service


We sat with Taylor Smith, Head of Customer Service at Ross & Snow – a high-end luxury brand known for their hand-made Italian boots and premium customer service:

“I think what exemplifies customer service best is the legendary story of a guy going into Nordstrom with a set of tires to return. Without missing a beat, he walked up to register, asked for a manager and requested a refund – not realizing the old tire shop that was once previously there had now closed down and been replaced by Nordstrom – an upscale apparel and shoe retailer that obviously doesn’t sell tires. Initially, the Nordstrom Manager was caught off guard, but after some quick thought, he decided to go ahead and refund the customer his money – no questions asked.  Now today, that story has been heard and shared countless amounts of times, and Nordstrom is still thought of as one of the golden standards in customer service — well worth the price of the tires I’d say!” 

She goes on to say, “Our founder, Fred Mossler, often retells this story – and it’s how we’ve tried to mold our company culture at Ross & Snow. Word of mouth is so powerful. If you can turn every customer into a fan, you’ve done your job.” 

4 Steps for Dealing with Upset Customers

  1. Don’t Take it Personally – Customer Service Rule #1. Remain calm and realize the customer’s frustrations aren’t towards you.  There’s nothing to be gained from losing your cool. 
  2. Listen – Your ears are your best friend, and the angry customer who is looking to vent, they’re his best friend, too.   Listen patiently, and hear them all the way through.  
  3. Sympathize and Apologize –   An angry customer wants to know you understand his frustrations.   Having sympathy and understanding will go a long way in rebuilding the customer’s trust.   After that, apologize. Be simple and straightforward. Don’t offer excuses or reasons why it happened.  Just apologize and ensure the customer you are going to make this right.  
  4. Find a Solution –  Once you have an idea of why the customer is upset, get creative in solving the problem.  Also, don’t be afraid to ask the customer for input on a solution, either. Most of the time customers already have an idea of what they need to make their experience right. You’ll probably start to hear a shift in the customer’s tone, from being angry and disgruntled to mellow and satisfied.  

The Customer is Always Right’, Heard Around the World

Now, the most common phrase throughout customer service rings globally.  

  • As the Japanese say, “Okyakusama wa kamisama desu” (the customer is a god)   
  • Germans proclaim, “der Kunde ist König” (the customer is king)
  • Italians sing, “Il cliente ha sempre ragione(the client has a reason)   

The customer is always right might sound a little different depending on where you are in the world, but it holds the same value universally: every customer is special, and it’s a privilege to have customers – especially in today’s competitive society with an abundance of alternative options.  Even though the customer might not always be literally right, you can never go wrong building your company culture around the motto that the customer is always right. Above all, being customer-centric through the entire consumer process is vital to every company’s success.  

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