Customer is Always right

Is the customer always right?

Those who have worked in customer service for years can attest to one universal truth – there is nothing worse than dealing with a disgruntled customer who quotes “the customer is always right.” It is guaranteed to grind on the most patient of customer service assistants. The truth of the matter is that not every customer has reasonable expectations. The world is full of consumers buying products and services every single day and unfortunately not all of them are going to get exactly what they want, and some of them will complain. This is even more prevalent in eCommerce, where email and support tickets adds a layer of anonymity to the conversations.

Bad Customer ServiceNow, in most instances they will have a perfectly legitimate reason: their product may not work, they may not have received the service they paid for, shipping could be late or air flights could be cancelled. But what happens when the customer is just plain wrong?

In the course of my first job as a customer service assistant in a large supermarket, I dealt with thousands of customer complaints and queries. Most of the customers were mild-mannered people, who had just been over charged on their shopping or wanted to return an item or inquire and request that a discontinued line be re-opened etc. They had genuine questions and complaints, and because they were all legitimate, there was no problem in dealing with them and the issues are resolved quickly and without frustration. Customer service tends to get fractious when a customer has an unreasonable expectation or request, because businesses are happy to correct an error if it is reasonable – it’s just common good practice.

During my four years at that supermarket, there were two managers who rotated shifts and are notable for their very different styles of customer care. The standard store policy was that when an angry customer makes a complaint to the customer service assistant and is extremely rude while doing so, the standard policy was to suggest that the customer speak to a manager, if the customer did not suggest it themselves. This is a good idea in many respects: the customer feels the complaint is being taken seriously so they are usually slightly calmer by the time the manager arrives and the assistant is free of the abusive customer and can help the next customer in line.
Now in this situation, both managers would start the same – they would listen politely to the complaint, regardless of how rude the customer was being. It’s the two reactions after this point which will stay with me forever.

On one occasion a woman yelled very rudely at the customer service assistants because she had been overcharged £2 on a nappy promotion. When offered a refund of the amount that she was overcharged, she demanded a full refund and to keep the product. Manager A was called. She apologised profusely and gave the woman a full refund, allowed her to keep the product and presented her with a free bunch of flowers.
On another occasion, a promotion was running for customers who spent a set amount in store every week leading up to Christmas, to be rewarded with £50 off their shopping for their final Christmas shop. A man short of 2 weeks’ receipts began yelling at the assistants because they could not give him a voucher. Manager B was called and told the man point blank that she supports whatever decision the assistants make, that the voucher would not be issued and if he continued to yell, to shop down the road at a competitors store.

right or wrongIn both instances a customer was not what could reasonably be considered “right.” But the different responses of the managers had two polar opposite effects. In the first scenario both the company’s rules and the assistants’ work was undermined by the manager and the customer rewarded for their outburst, much to the chagrin of the employees. In the second instance, the manager upheld the rules of the company and treated the employees with respect. Which manager’s shift would you rather work on?

This subject is a delicate one and doesn’t just affect employees; it also has an impact on other customers. When a customer sees someone who is not making rational requests being rewarded it sets a bad precedent for pleasant customers, who will feel wronged by a customer getting the upper hand by being rude to staff or being demanding.
Different companies have different policies with regards to customer care. Some will bow to the customer to the point of alienating staff members and lowering morale, and others will back their staff and risk losing a customer. My advice is pick your battles – at the end of the day customer service will decide the winner amongst companies selling similar products, but at the same time happy, respected employees will always make the company more money. As a wise woman I worked with once said, “We’re paid to help, not take abuse.”


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