Why is the customer always right?

2008-07-23 00:00

The maxim “The customer is always right” was originally coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, who was the founder of a department store in London in the 20th century.

The purpose of this phrase is two-fold: firstly, it serves to assure customers that if they choose to use your service and products they’ll get red-carpet treatment every time and, secondly, it forces your employees to give good service.

I had the chance to question this axiom when I was violated by a client who didn’t like my perfume because it had vanilla key notes. The client began the meeting with a dramatic oxymoron (something about an atrocious smelling perfume) and proceeded to smell everyone around the boardroom table, including my boss, before eventually outing me.

I was horrified.

I was further devastated when I was told by my boss not to take the matter personally, and a colleague suggested that I never wear that perfume again.

The irony is that in my personal capacity, I’m the client’s client as I had bought that fragrance at a Red Square store. After pushing for and getting a verbal and written apology from said client, I resigned and vowed never to shop at Edgars again.

For me this was a perfect example of how certain customers abuse their status. Alexandra Kjerulf, an author and human resources expert, came up with five reasons why the mantra “the customer is always right” is wrong.

Two reasons stuck in my mind:

• it makes employees (even the excellent ones) unhappy; and

• it gives unruly customers carte blanche to misbehave.

Let me start with the latter because it does impact on the former. Customers by nature are hedonistic beings, but I believe there are no good or bad customers, just those who are bad for business.

For example, a friend who is a marketing specialist has horrid tales of clients who are sexist and racist. She’s noted that time and money are spent on the boorish clients rather than the ones that are reasonable and co-operative.

She says it’s no longer about whether the company can deliver on their work promises, but more about golf weekends with clients where employees are meant to carry “huge bottles of Vaseline to wax their behinds”.

Although bad-mannered clients are bringing in substantial amounts of money, she believes the company is losing revenue and skills because of the high staff turnover as a result of the clients’ abusive behaviour towards employees.

She herself is so unhappy and frustrated about the conditions there that she has decided to jump ship. Many companies fall short of protecting their staff from psychotic clients by not empowering them with the tools to deal with clients or by failing to stand up for them when a customer steps out of line.

Example number two: a social contact was called “a piece of useless fat crap” by a customer, and when she retaliated, she was sent to a disciplinary hearing and given a warning.

When she sought help from human resources, she was told rude clients are part of her job hazard and she should grow a tougher hide and a sense of humour. She had been with the company for five years, won several awards and hadn’t once received a complaint from clients.

Sacrificing good employees for bad business isn’t the way to go, according to successful American CEO Hal Rosenbluth, who believes that companies should put the customer second and their staff first, and watch them kick butt.

Perhaps the real problem isn’t the phrase “the customer is always right” but rather that companies have taken it too literally. The phrase should rather be an attitude that one has towards customers, but not to those customers who are undeserving.

— Women24.

• Sbu Mpungose is the former editor of Move! magazine who has decided to become a stay-at-home mother and freelance journalist.

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