If you’ve ever worked a day in the service industry, you’ve seen this slogan plastered on a break room wall. The idea was coined by a turn-of-the-century retailer, and it’s so common that many businesses make it a mandate for their customer service teams. But, like any principle, “the customer is always right” shouldn’t be taken literally.

The Customer Is Always Right: The Verdict

You’ve probably heard someone say that the customer is always right, especially if you’ve had experience in customer service or retail . But have you ever thought about what the statement implies? Who came up with this philosophical note? Does this hold true 24/7? Let’s reveal some of these answers.

Though it’s unclear who coined the exact phrase ‘the customer is always right’ first, the idea was advocated around the turn of the 20th century by Marshall Field and his protégé Harry Gordon Selfridge, who later went on to start the wildly successful Selfridges chain of stores across the UK. When Selfridge came out of retirement to open the first Selfridges store in London, the first thing he wanted was to establish a customer-centric approach . He wanted to make sure all customer complaints were heard, recorded, and resolved so that the customers could keep coming back for good customer service.

He was successful in raising the bar for customer satisfaction as a result of which people began shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. Probably considered radical at the time, Selfridges went an extra mile to guarantee good service. He encouraged shoppers to just browse, advising the store attendants to assist customers if they needed help. The business model followed one simple mandate: Operate under the assumption that the customer is always right. Soon, more and more businesses followed suit as they observed a rise in happy customers.

There are many variations to this philosophy which include “le client n’a jamais tort” (the customer is never wrong), the slogan of César Ritz . The Swiss hotelier, famously known as the founder of the Ritz Carlton hotel said, “If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked”. This variation also found its way to Germany where it was believed that “ the customer is king “. Even Japan adopted the motto of “okyakusama wa kamisama desu” meaning “the customer is a god”. But how significant is this phrase for your customer service team? Does it really improve customer experience? Is it really true in the first place?

Is it true that the customer is always right?

It dates back to an era where customers were increasingly being given the power of choice. If people needed to buy things, they no longer had just one place to buy from. That’s when Selfridge and Field realized that they had to retain their customers and keep them coming back for something more.

unreasonable customers

In the age of Caveat emptor aka ‘buyer beware’, customers were held responsible for their purchases, therefore making the customer feel valued was the ultimate differentiator. When someone walked into a Selfridges, they didn’t have to worry about what they were getting themselves into and the risk associated with investing in their products, all they did was naturally choose to visit the department store again.

By delivering exceptional customer experience , not only did Selfridges garner customer loyalty, but it also nurtured customer advocates to recommend the store for all things you might need. But how far does this philosophy take entrepreneurs? What does your customer really want ?

Does “The customer is always right” stand true 24/7?

When Field or Selfridge came up with the phrase, it’s possible that they didn’t mean for it to be taken literally. Selfridge and Field believed that taking customers for their word and leaving no room for deception or cheating would differentiate their department store from the cutthroat businesses of the time. They were trying to make customers feel heard and welcome. So it isn’t very fair of us, in this day and age, to take such a sweeping statement at face value.

Especially with social media gaining ground, customers have all the power to voice their opinions. A tweet can start trending in no time and business owners are left to make up for missed opportunities and bad customer experiences over a short span of time.

The French adaptation of the phrase (le client n’a jamais tort) denoted the customer is never wrong. But the idea is as controversial as it is popular. As early as 1914, people began realizing the possibility of fraud and dishonesty that such policies (when enforced literally) might invite.

An attitude that believes otherwise can negatively impact the efforts put in by the customer support team. The fact is you are likely to meet a lot of unreasonable customers, interacting with your customer support team. These customers might be frustrated, hard to handle, and despite your team’s best efforts, a resolution might not always be available. According to the phrase in debate, if you happen to favor this set of customers, you could potentially lose on your customer experience experts.

History of “the customer is always right”

Harry Gordon Selfridge is credited with coining the term “the customer is always right,” but the idea is attributed to various retail pioneers at the turn of the century, including Marshall Field. In the early days, this idea was revolutionary. It meant treating customers with respect and dignity, something that wasn’t commonplace.

Selfridge, who founded the department store Selfridges in the United Kingdom and Field, owner of Marshall Field and Co. in Chicago, realized early on in their career that their business depended on happy customers. Though it’s unclear who first used the phrase, both retailers made it a core business value. Staff were told to treat their customers as if they were always right, even if it was obvious they were wrong. It showed customers they were special, and the change in attitude brought shoppers into their stores.

“The customer is always right” stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing idea of the day, when caveat emptor was a common legal term. We know it as “let the buyer beware.” This philosophy puts all the burden of a purchase on a customer—if a shirt is stained and they discover it at home, it’s too late. No returns allowed. The seller didn’t have to help the customer at all. Victorian pharmacies carried “magic health tonics” laced with cocaine and morphine that claimed to cure teething troubles in infants. The streets and newspapers were flooded with advertisements making spectacular claims to get customers to open their wallets. Retailers could straight up lie to customers and get away with it. So the notion of treating customers with any kind of respect was revolutionary.



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