“The Customer is Always Right” – Who Do You Believe: Customers Or Employees?

“The Customer is Always Right”- Who Do You Believe? Customers Or Employees? / CentraCX

This post first appeared on CentraCX’s blog in March, 2021.

Contrary to conventional thought, this phrase never originated as a demand from a customer. It came from London department store owner, Harry Selfridge, in 1909 and was intended to convey to customers that they would receive excellent service at his department store and to convince his employees to provide excellent service.

Selfridge wasn’t alone in placing customers on a pedestal. Similar variations of the phrase found in other cultures include: “le client n’a jamais tort” (the customer is never wrong) in France, “der Kunde ist König” (the customer is king) in Germany, while in Japan they took it to a whole new level with “okyakusama wa kamisama desu” (お客様は神様です) meaning “the customer is a god”.

Four different cultures couldn’t be wrong, could they? Whilst this mantra might have had a positive effect on customer perceptions – especially at a time when misrepresentation was rife and caveat emptor was a common legal maxim – it had the opposite effect on employees. Often disempowering them in their relationship both with the customer and the business.

We all know that customers can be jerks sometimes, right! Need evidence? Look at the lady who walked into Bunnings last year in the middle of a pandemic when masks were mandatory in public claiming that she didn’t need to wear one. Not very queen-like is it? And certainly not behaviour befitting a god. Watching that video you feel just awful for the poor Bunnings employees who did a wonderful job in the face of such adversity. Was she right? I think we can all agree that the answer is no.

In extreme cases like that, when a business owner goes by the mantra “the customer is always right” and takes the customer’s side, the effect on employee morale is devastating. If employees think you don’t have their back when they’re dealing with a customer who is being completely unreasonable, they’re going to resent you for it.

But what about when the customer isn’t being completely unreasonable? More often than not, customers aren’t jerks and have a genuine issue. In these instances, they’re still not “right” but they’ve only got half the story. They know there’s a problem but they usually don’t know what’s caused it.

The employee is always right

In these instances, what’s needed is a “translator”. Someone who can turn the customer’s external language (for example “my delivery was missed”) into internal language (“our northern region driver called in sick yesterday and we have no contingency drivers booked in those situations”).

These “translators” are frontline employees and they are a gold mine of information. Who else within the company is fluent in two “languages” and gets to use both on a daily basis? Front line employees contextualise customer feedback adding a further layer of richness to the data.

So frontline employees are just as important to your business as customers. Maybe it’s time we had another look at some of our old sayings, and put our employees at the centre of them.

The employee is always right. The employee is never wrong. The employee is king. The employee is a god.

In the wise words of Sir Richard Branson “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

“The Customer is Always Right”- Who Do You Believe? Customers Or Employees? / CentraCX

Imagine turning up for work each day as a frontline worker knowing you had that kind of support from your company. Imagine what kind of work you would do.


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