I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of “The Customer is Always Right (TCIAR)” philosophy. It’s abusive, insane, outdated, annoyingly persistent, and most of all, it’s completely untrue.
There is no doubt in my mind that as you’re reading these words, TCIAR is currently torturing another front line employee with its insanity. What’s worse, is that millions of front line employees all over the globe are likely dealing with a similar fate at their jobs with no end in sight.
This is no longer okay with me. I hope that you feel the same way too.
It doesn’t have to be this way any longer. We can kill TCIAR right here and right now–and make sure that it stays dead.
But in order for that to happen, we need to expose The Customer Is Always Right as the mindlessly idiotic rallying cry that it is. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, people.
As consumers, employees, managers, business owners we have the power to finally end this insanity once and for all. This is where I need your help, but I’ll get to that later.
Some of you might be wondering why I’m so passionate about this topic? The Customer is Always Right has been around forever. Who am I to think that I can do anything to put an end to it once and for all?
Fair question. Here’s my answer:
Because someone has to do it.
This phrase has been the cause of way too much undeserved abuse, and it needs to stop now. Today. This very minute. I’m tired of waiting for it to magically go away on its own, so it’s time to take matters into our own hands.
If you have already read Part 1 of this series, then you were able to see a quick example of the insanity of TCIAR in action. But for me, it goes a little deeper than just one scenario. A lot deeper, actually. I’ve witnessed this phrase hurt many of my friends, family members, coworkers, total strangers, and of course, me too. Keeping it as real as possible–I don’t want this phrase to hurt anyone else ever again. That’s where my passion comes from.
To truly understand what I mean, let’s go back to the beginning.
My First Ever Battle with TCIAR
I was 17 years old and working as a cashier at the Burger King near my hometown in Massachusetts. Yes, as you can see, I proudly rocked the extra-medium, polyester BK uniform and only made a little over $5/hour–but in my mind, I was living the American dream. I was paid a wage that I was happy with, I really liked my coworkers, and I sincerely enjoyed my work. Before you laugh, let’s be real for a second–how many people can honestly say that about their current jobs?
Unfortunately, one day something happened that made me willing to give it all up in an instant.
One afternoon, less than 15 minutes into my shift, a balding, doughy-looking man who reminded me of a shorter, chubbier version of Gargamel from the Smurfs (not that his appearance is relevant to this story in any way, but I wanted to help you to get a full image of this situation) walked up to the counter and ordered a Whopper with extra pickles and no ketchup.
As I type this right now, it is absolutely crazy to me that even though this happened almost 20 years ago, I still can remember what this guy looked like, his Whopper order, and how he painstakingly stressed extra pickles and no ketchup like he was a brain surgeon giving operating instructions to a recent nursing school grad.
I pleasantly took his order, and no more than 5 minutes later I handed the man his piping hot Whopper and then he happily sat down. No big deal, right?
Yeah, I didn’t think so either.
Almost immediately after he sat down, this man who was probably 3 times my age—but half my size—made a beeline for the counter and threw the unwrapped Whopper at me and hit me square in the chest with it before it fell on the counter in front of me.
“I said EXTRA PICKLES moron! There’s only 5 pickles on this damn Whopper! I demand my money back and I want my Whopper made correctly, NOW!”
I know that this is about 20 years too late, but if there are any Burger King employees reading this, is there a set amount of pickles that qualifies as extra pickles? If so, I’d love to know. Thanks in advance.
Thinking back on it now, I must have that lived a fairly charmed life to that point, because that was the first time that I can remember ever being screamed at by someone that I didn’t know. I was scared. I was humiliated. I was angry. I wanted to cry. I wanted to knock his ass out. I wanted someone to stand up for me.
As a 17 year old kid, I turned to my boss Julie (not her real name), who witnessed the whole interaction, to step up to the plate for me.
Julie, who I only remember for consistently butchering my name and for such managerial pearls of wisdom like, “if you have time to lean, then you have time to clean,” so I probably should have predicted what was likely coming next.
“Shilo, please go to the back and tell them to special order a Whopper with extra pickles and no ketchup for this gentleman, ok?”
“Wait…what?! Gentleman?? Are you kidding me?! He threw his Whopper at me! You seriously want to give him a free…”
While simultaneously smiling at the customer and gritting her teeth at my defiance, Julie sternly said, “SHILO! The customer is always right! Go get the man his Whopper now, ok?”
“My name is Shola, damn it! Sholaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!”
For those of you wondering, yes I did get his Whopper with extra pickles. No, I didn’t spit in it, add some of my personal “special sauce,” or wipe down the urinal with his Whopper before giving it to him.
Besides the fact that all of the above acts are sick, twisted, disgusting, and illegal–I just don’t believe in that type of stupidity, and I never have.
How would that make me any better than that asshat if I did those things? That’s amateur hour stuff.
I’m interested in real victories, like breaking the cycle of this type of behavior forever–not some meaningless pseudo-victory that could potentially land my ass in jail if someone found out. Even at 17 years old, I knew that. If that’s your idea of balancing the karmic scale, then you’re an idiot and you need to grow up. Seriously.
So, what did I do instead?
I just wiped the pickles and mayonnaise off of my “smedium” polyester uniform, gave him his Whopper (which he promptly snatched out of my hand, while again insulting my intelligence), and then I waited patiently for my shift to end.
And then I quit.
The Silence of Our Friends
As I walked 2 miles back to my house smelling like mayonnaise and pickle juice, the tears flowed freely. My mind raced.
How could that man treat me like that? Why didn’t Julie stand up for me when she saw everything that happened? Why was that man rewarded for his horrible behavior?
These thoughts tormented me as I walked home, but no thought tormented me more than this one: how will I be able to survive in the working world where the customer is always right?
Fast forward 20 years later, and now I was watching another young cashier getting blindsided by TCIAR (Author’s note: this was detailed in Part 1 of this series). Even though on the surface we appeared to be two completely different people, on that night, we were exactly the same. I didn’t just understand his pain, I felt it too.
As a former front line employee in many different industries such as retail, food service, and as a call center representative, I’ve seen many forms of the ugliness of TCIAR in the past 20 years.
I know what it’s like to feel hopelessly demoralized by TCIAR. I know what it’s like to feel sub-human, based solely on what I chose to do as a profession. I sincerely wanted to help the department store cashier in Part 1. I truly did. But what could I say?
Should I have told him that he’ll eventually get used to the idea that the customer is always right? He won’t.
Should I have told him that he has the power to single-handedly rid his store of the abusive “customer is always right” mentality? He doesn’t.
So instead of offering assistance to this young man, instead of putting the screaming lady in check after she smugly waved her new gift card in the air on her way out the store, instead of asking the manager why he rewarded the screaming lady’s hideous behavior–what did I do?
Like a coward, I hopped in my car and drove home.
Simply put, I did nothing.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was on that drive home when I pitifully realized that for much of the past 20 years when I’ve witnessed TCIAR or any other form of abuse, I’ve consistently been silent.
That realization shook me to my core. My silence in the presence of abuse will never happen again.
Three Reasons why The Customer is Always Right will Always Fail
Ever since my less-than-pleasant first introduction with TCIAR at Burger King, I needed to understand why such an incredibly stupid idea could have so much staying power. Especially since I have never noticed anything positive result from the consistent use of it.
Speaking of which, I think now is as good of a time as any to address the worst argument in defense of TCIAR. Here it is:
“The customer is always right isn’t meant to be taken literally.”
What does that mean exactly? If it’s not supposed to be taken literally, how in the world would you explain the Customer is Always Right philosophy to your employees?
Manager addressing his/her employees: “Just so you all know, our store/company believes strongly in the customer is always right. Keep in mind that it’s not meant to be taken literally though. There are times when the customer is always right is wrong, but in that case, you need to make the ‘wrong’ customer believe that he’s always right, ok?”
If it’s not meant to be taken literally, then why even say it at all?
Either way, this isn’t even the real problem. The much scarier problem are the customers and the companies who actually take The Customer is Always Right very literally. This is what we need to be worried about.
On the surface, it may seem that making your customers feel like they’re always right is a fantastic way to make your customers happy and more willing to spend money with your company. Except that it’s not. It may work sporadically, but in the long run, it will fail. Here are three painfully obvious reasons why:
1. TCIAR turns your front line into a warzone between customers and employees.
Seriously, isn’t this obvious?
When companies proudly state that The Customer is Always Right, what they’re actually saying is that they’re giving 100% of the power to the customers and 0% to the employees who are hired to assist them. This is not a good thing.
When there’s a dispute/issue/problem of any kind involving a customer, how do you think it will end? We already know who’s always right, so guess who’s always wrong regardless of the circumstances? Believe me, employees will resent this deeply and it will eventually create an “us vs. them” culture where no one wins.
Since the beginning of time, whenever the scale of power is tipped completely in the favor one specific group, it’s only a matter of time before those who are not in power allow their resentment to build up to the point where they feel compelled to act out.
It could be something as mild as an employee intentionally offering crappy customer service, all the way to an extreme act such as an employee spitting in a customer’s food. Obviously, no one is excusing this kind of stupidity, but you would have to be very naive to think that a powerless employee wouldn’t do something in hopes of gaining just a little bit of power back from a customer–whether that power is real or imagined.
If you are a manager, business owner, or C-Level executive who believes in TCIAR, you should be scared as hell of the two preceding paragraphs. If not, re-read them until you fully understand the negative impact TCIAR can have on your company’s image and financial bottom line as long as you continue to believe in its infinite silliness.
2. Nice customers actually get second class treatment.
Not that you didn’t already know this, but every company has many epic customers who are not only very willing to spend money, but (gasp) they’re also really nice too! They happily shop at your store without any drama, they say “please” and “thank you” when they reach your call center, and they still can muster up a smile and offer you compliments even though they’re horribly sick and laid up in the hospital.
Now here’s where it gets crazy.
Instead of treating these men and women like gold, many companies who believe in TCIAR feel that it’s a higher priority to retain the manipulators, the constantly dissatisfied, the liars, the serial refunders, the verbally abusive, the rude, and the completely unreasonable customers instead.
TCIAR-believing companies actually act like it’s a waste of time to focus on the exceptional 90% of their customer pool. They’re not complaining, so they must be happy, right? Instead, it’s all about oiling the squeaky wheels. Seriously, does it make sense to keep the guy who just called the cashier the N-word because the coffee shop discontinued his favorite coffee blend? Is that who you want to keep as a loyal customer?
Who would you rather keep around: the occasional abusive customer who you’ll probably (and hopefully) never see again, or the person who arrives on your front line everyday to faithfully support your company’s mission?
The choice is yours. Make the right one.
3. Your good people will leave.
Unfortunately, many companies reading this may think, “so what if they leave? I can replace any of these dime-a-dozen front line fools in a heartbeat.”
Treating your front line staff like a piece of gum that you can spit out once it loses its flavor also isn’t a very good idea. From a business perspective, it’s actually a terrible idea. It might seem expensive to replace a customer, but it’s not nearly as expensive as it is to replace an employee–especially if that employee is good.
Instead of mentoring and supervising the front line staff, managers now have to spend a large portion of their time dealing with employee turnover, training new staff, and dealing with the numerous issues related to dealing with a short-staffed team. Please believe that it costs much more than time to do this, it costs money too.
That’s only half of the problem though.
Not only will your good employees leave (and why wouldn’t they?), but your good customers will eventually leave too.
If TCIAR is slowly turning your front line staff into a gang of mindless, bitter, powerless, indentured servants who hate their jobs, their customers, and their company–what are the odds that any of your customers (good or bad) are going to receive decent customer service from them? What are the odds that your best customers will continue to choose to stick around when they could just as easily shop at a store with better service?
Very slim, if any.
And do you know what’s worse for your company than having bitter, powerless employees serving as the face of your company?
Yeah, me neither.
The Death of the Customer is Always Right
There’s no doubt in my mind that we can end the madness. Please notice the “we” part. This can’t done by little ol’ me alone. I need you. Anyone who desperately wants The Customer is Always Right to stay dead forever needs you.
If you are a customer, you can choose to spend your money with companies who choose to support their employees. If you’re unsure, just ask a few front line employees–they’ll tell it to you straight.
If you are an employee, you can choose to never spend a minute working for a company that believes that the customer is always right.
If you are a manager or supervisor, you can demand excellence from your employees while empowering them to never accept customer abuse in any form.
If you are a C-Level executive, you can take the courageous step of changing your company’s culture from the archaic TCIAR to a modern philosophy that ensures that both employees and customers are treated with respect at all times.
No matter where you fall, you have a role to play in this. Next time you see a customer abusing an employee, don’t turn your head, pretend that you didn’t see anything, and drive home like I did.
The more of us who are willing to take positive action, the sooner that TCIAR disappears from the face of the earth for good.
Fair warning: that blank headstone at the beginning of this post could end up being engraved with your company’s name on it if your company foolishly parrots the customer is always right as its rallying cry.
The good news is that this headstone is already reserved for TCIAR. Its long overdue death is now complete. Good riddance.
R.I.P. The Customer is Always Right. You will not be missed.