The phrase “The customer is always right” was originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London, and is typically used by businesses to convince customers that they will get good service at this company and convince employees to give customers good service.

However, I think businesses should abandon this phrase once and for all — ironically, because it leads to worse customer service.

Here are the top five reasons why “The Customer Is Always Right” is wrong.

1: It Makes Employees Unhappy

Gordon Bethune is a brash Texan (as is Herb Kelleher, coincidentally) who is best known for turning Continental Airlines around “From Worst to First,” a story told in his book of the same title from 1998. He wanted to make sure that both customers and employees liked the way Continental treated them, so he made it very clear that the maxim “the customer is always right” didn’t hold sway at Continental.

In conflicts between employees and unruly customers he would consistently side with his people. 

o Bethune trusted his people over unreasonable customers. What I like about this attitude is that it balances employees and customers. The “always right” maxim squarely favors the customer which is a bad idea, because, as Bethune says, it causes resentment among employees.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of bad employees giving lousy customer service but trying to solve this by declaring the customer “always right” is counter-productive.

2: It Gives Abrasive Customers an Unfair Advantage

Using the slogan “The customer is always right,” abusive customers can demand just about anything — they’re right by definition, aren’t they? This makes the employees’ jobs that much harder when trying to rein them in.

Also, it means that abusive people get better treatment and conditions than nice people. That always seemed wrong to me, and it makes much more sense to be nice to the nice customers to keep them coming back.

3: Some Customers Are Bad for Business

Most businesses think that “the more customers the better”. But some customers are quite simply bad for business.

Just like Kelleher dismissed the irate lady who kept complaining (but somehow also kept flying on Southwest), ServiceGruppen fired a bad customer. Note that it was not even a matter of a financial calculation — not a question of whether either company would make or lose money on that customer in the long run. It was a simple matter of respect and dignity and of treating their employees right.

4: It Results in Worse Customer Service

Rosenbluth International, a corporate travel agency since bought by American Express, took it even further. CEO Hal Rosenbluth wrote an excellent book about their approach called Put The Customer Second - Put your people first and watch’em kick butt.

Rosenbluth argues that when you put the employees first, they put the customers first. Put employees first and they will be happy at work. Employees who are happy at work give better customer service because:

  • They care more about other people, including customers
  • They have more energy
  • They are happy, meaning they are more fun to talk to and interact with
  • They are more motivated
  • On the other hand, when the company and management consistently side with customers instead of with employees, it sends a clear message that:

    • Employees are not valued
  • Treating employees fairly is not important
  • Employees have no right to respect from customers
  • Employees have to put up with everything from customers
  • When this attitude prevails, employees stop caring about service. At that point, genuinely good service is almost impossible — the best customers can hope for is fake good service. You know the kind I mean: courteous on the surface only.



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