Is the Customer Always Right?

Abigail Schrauth

If you’ve ever worked a day in the service industry, you’ll see this slogan plastered on the wall of the break room. This idea was invented by a retailer of the last century, and it is so popular that many companies consider it a duty to their customer service teams.

However, like any principle, the customer is always right should not be taken literally. On the surface, this customer relationship philosophy is simple and makes sense. After all, customers are the goal of business. They help you pay your employees and build your brand as they send friends and family your way. Without customers, you wouldn’t have a business. So it makes sense to keep them happy. That still doesn’t mean your customer is always right. In the long run, following the whims of every customer is unsustainable. There is a more nuanced way to approach a customer service strategy that will serve you better. Here’s why.

Harry Gordon Selfridge is credited with coining the term the customer is always right, but the idea is credited to many retail pioneers at the turn of the century, including Marshall Field. At first, this idea was revolutionary. This means treating customers with respect and dignity, which is unusual. Selfridge, founder of the UK department store Selfridges, and Field, owner of Marshall Field and Co. in Chicago, realized early on that their business depended on satisfied customers.

While it’s unclear who first used the phrase, both retailers consider the phrase a core business value. Employees are required to treat their customers as if they were always right, even when it was obvious they were wrong. It shows customers that they are special and the change in attitude has brought shoppers to their store. The customer is always right was in stark contrast to the popular idea at the time, when caveat emptor was a common legal term.

We call it buyer beware. This philosophy places the entire responsibility of the purchase on the customer  if a shirt is stained and they find it at home, it’s too late. No return allowed. The seller does not have to help the customer at all. Victorian pharmacies sell miracle health tonics containing cocaine and morphine that are said to cure teething problems in babies. Streets and newspapers are flooded with ads making dramatic claims to entice customers to open their wallets. Retailers can lie to customers and get away with crime. So the idea of ​​treating customers with all forms of respect is revolutionary.