Is The Customer Always Right?

Monday, March 26, 2012


As a small business owner, I have always been told that 'the customer is always right'.  As a consumer, I am well aware of the fact that many businesses do not live by this rule AND- it is in fact possible that I am NOT always right (OUCH!!).  So what is the answer?

  •  YES- the Customer is always right?
  • NO- the Customer can certainly be wrong?

Or does the answer lie somewhere between the two?
Let's look at both sides and then we can all decide for ourselves!!


ORIGIN: In order to determine the accuracy of the statement, we need to know WHERE the phrase came from so read on for some historical data!
The slogan has been used since the early 20th century. In the USA it is particularly associated with Marshall Field's department store, Chicago (established in the late 19th century). The store was an icon of the city, although the store's name was changed in 2006 when, following a takeover, it was renamed Macy's. In the UK, Harry Gordon Selfridge (1857-1947) the founder of London'Selfridges with championing the phrase. The Wisconsin born Selfridge worked for Field from 1879 to 1901. Both men were dynamic and creative businessmen and it's highly likely that one of them coined the phrase, although we don't know which.

Of course, these entrepreneurs didn't intend to be taken literally.What they were attempting to do was to make the customer feel special by inculcating into their staff the disposition to behave as if the customer was right, even when they weren't.

The trading policy and the phrase were well-known by the early 20th century. From the Kansas City Star, January 1911 we have a piece about a local country store that was modelled on Field's/Selfridge's philosphy:

[George E.] "Scott has done in the country what Marshall Field did in Chicago, Wannamaker did in New York and Selfridge in London. In his store he follows the Field rule and assumes that the customer is always right."

Whether the phrase was coined by Field or Selfridge, it is fair to call it American. What we can't do is credit them with the idea behind it. In 1908 César Ritz (1850-1918), the celebrated French hotelier is credited with saying 'Le client n'a jamais tort' - 'The customer is never wrong'. That's not the phrase that people now remember, but it can hardly be said to be any different in meaning to 'the customer is always right'.



THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT- those who believe the phrase have followed in the footsteps of some industry giants! As a customer, it is nice to think that a store would go out of their way to accommodate my needs or concerns. The consumer will undoubtedly share their experience and possibly encourage their friends or associates to visit the store. The business benefits by having a heightened sense of service and a more positive work environment. The added sales from repeat or referral customers is certainly well worth the efforts to make customers feel as if they are always right. 'The customer is always right' typically works out very well for all parties concerned but what happens when it does not?



THE CUSTOMER IS NOT ALWAYS RIGHT- those who challenge the aforementioned phrase have typically experienced some 'interesting' customer experiences. Consider the well known Nordstroms story about the customer who returned a set of tire chains to the clothing giant. How in the world could the customer have been right in this case? Nordstroms has never sold tire chains and so his request to have the chains returned was most certainly well beyond a reasonable request- here is the story:
One legendary story is the “tire chains” story. A man walked into Nordstroms and insisted that he purchased a used set of tire chains there. Without hesitation, the Nordstrom clerk refunded the person’s money out of her own pocket – even though the receipt clearly indicated another store. Then, on her lunch hour, she took the receipt and tire chains to the store where they were from and got her money back.
Most people would agree that the customer in this case was NOT right but that Nordstroms just made the most of a difficult situation.

One thing is for sure: Right or Wrong the customer is ~ The Customer!! They may push the boundaries of your policies and procedures, they may forget their personal role in the situations they are involved in but at the end of the day, they decide where to spend their money. As business owners we get to decide how we deal with the various situations that arise and we get to determine how our teams make our customer's feel. We cannot control what customers say or do but we can remain focused on our intent to provide that legendary type of service that Marshall Fields envisioned so many years ago.

So yes- right or wrong, the Customer really is ALWAYS right for they determine our long term fate as businesses.

Cheri Perry 3/26/2012

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