When believing that “the customer is always right” is wrong

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We’ve all encountered those people, the rude, screaming, intolerable jerks who  manifest their sense of entitlement on anyone they consider inferior. We’ve heard them shouting over the phone to tech support, demanding to speak with a manager when in line at a store, and complaining incessantly about slow service in a restaurant. Why the bitterness and lashing out? After all, weren’t most of us once at the bottom of the totem pole, bussing crumbs off tables, folding a pile of wrinkled, disorganized clothes, smiling with gritted teeth at a line of angry people? Weren’t most of us victims of the cruel, submissive world that is minimum-wage pay? And when we were serving as underappreciated employees, didn’t we all make that same vow to never ever be that insensitive, ridiculous customer.

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And yet, we are masters of hypocrisy; quite skilled in removing ourselves from our prior, weakling statuses once we obtain just a miniscule ounce of power. Just as teenagers promise to never discipline their own kids the same way their parents discipline them, employees in customer-service related jobs often claim they will never treat someone with the disrespect and cruelty they frequently encounter. But lo and behold, teenagers grow up, and when they have children, they quickly realize importance of establishing power and utilizing authority and discipline as needed. Likewise, when low-earning employees are promoted into higher positions, many struggle with this new rank. Power is undoubtedly complex. It becomes even more complex when it is loosely established by outdated adages, rather than specifically defined. In American consumerism, we give the power to the customer. The customer is always right represents a very popular all-or-nothing theory. Many workplaces drill this business ploy into their employees’ minds. Often seen in interview processes, employers expect potential candidates to recite this line when asked what customer service means to them. While this may play nicely in theory, its execution can create enormous turmoil and hostility within the company. When unruly customers think they are always right, they may feel inclined to take advantage of a company knowing their outlandish demands will be accomodated. Likewise, when employees believe they are never right, they can feel helpless and ineffective when trying to settle out a dispute.


In other words, companies can lose A TON of money and employees can lose A TON of dignity just by complying with the unfair demands of an unrealistic customer.

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Let me speak to your supervisor! is another example of misconstrued ego. Customers use this line to establish dominance over a situation, and its force shows an employee that he or she is valueless to the customer. Although supervisors have more flexibility regarding company policy, making exceptions to benefit a customer is usually done by individual discretion. Dismissing a lower-level employee and demanding to speak to a supervisor invites a host of issues; if the manager honors that customer when he or she is absolutely wrong, he is demonstrating that the company values customer loyalty above the treatment of their employees. This can either make the customer feel special and motivated to continue services with the company, or it can lead the customer into believing he or she has beaten the system. Those individuals will likely continue taking advantage of the company’s genorisity again. Again, this is in reference to the small population of rude and vial customers plaguing our service-related industry. Asking to speak to a manager simply because the problem is beyond the scope of an employee’s responsibilities is not a crime. Calling an employee incompetent and then demanding to speak to someone “who can help” is.

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What do companies gain by giving into these unruly customers? Extra money? Obviously. Loyalty? Not exactly. Once slighted, the complaining, unsatisfied customers are more likely to distrust the company and its products. Therefore, they are become primed to notice flaws and mistakes in future services. It seems as if they are just waiting for the company to screw up again. Do companies benefit from these customers breathing down their backs, ready to pounce on them again at another hint of a slight mistake, eager to criticize and take advantage of them bending over backwards for them? More importantly, how can we better address this uneven dynamic within employees, supervisors, and customers? Proposed ideas include: encouraging teenagers to acquire part-time jobs (this shows responsibility, and since most of these are lower-end, minimum-wage positions, they will experience a fair share of rude people), training and providing employees with more discretion to make executive decisions regarding “bending” or “changing” company policies to adhere to a particular customer’s needs, and, finally, revising the old-fashioned the customer is always right statement.