The Customer Is Always Right: The Verdict
You’ve probably heard someone say that the customer is always right, especially if you’ve had experience in customer service or retail . But have you ever thought about what the statement implies? Who came up with this philosophical note? Does this hold true 24/7? Let’s reveal some of these answers.
Though it’s unclear who coined the exact phrase ‘the customer is always right’ first, the idea was advocated around the turn of the 20th century by Marshall Field and his protégé Harry Gordon Selfridge, who later went on to start the wildly successful Selfridges chain of stores across the UK. When Selfridge came out of retirement to open the first Selfridges store in London, the first thing he wanted was to establish a customer-centric approach . He wanted to make sure all customer complaints were heard, recorded, and resolved so that the customers could keep coming back for good customer service.
He was successful in raising the bar for customer satisfaction as a result of which people began shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. Probably considered radical at the time, Selfridges went an extra mile to guarantee good service. He encouraged shoppers to just browse, advising the store attendants to assist customers if they needed help. The business model followed one simple mandate: Operate under the assumption that the customer is always right. Soon, more and more businesses followed suit as they observed a rise in happy customers.
There are many variations to this philosophy which include “le client n’a jamais tort” (the customer is never wrong), the slogan of César Ritz . The Swiss hotelier, famously known as the founder of the Ritz Carlton hotel said, “If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked”. This variation also found its way to Germany where it was believed that “ the customer is king “. Even Japan adopted the motto of “okyakusama wa kamisama desu” meaning “the customer is a god”. But how significant is this phrase for your customer service team? Does it really improve customer experience? Is it really true in the first place?
History of “the customer is always right”
Harry Gordon Selfridge is credited with coining the term “the customer is always right,” but the idea is attributed to various retail pioneers at the turn of the century, including Marshall Field. In the early days, this idea was revolutionary. It meant treating customers with respect and dignity, something that wasn’t commonplace.
Selfridge, who founded the department store Selfridges in the United Kingdom and Field, owner of Marshall Field and Co. in Chicago, realized early on in their career that their business depended on happy customers. Though it’s unclear who first used the phrase, both retailers made it a core business value. Staff were told to treat their customers as if they were always right, even if it was obvious they were wrong. It showed customers they were special, and the change in attitude brought shoppers into their stores.
“The customer is always right” stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing idea of the day, when caveat emptor was a common legal term. We know it as “let the buyer beware.” This philosophy puts all the burden of a purchase on a customer—if a shirt is stained and they discover it at home, it’s too late. No returns allowed. The seller didn’t have to help the customer at all. Victorian pharmacies carried “magic health tonics” laced with cocaine and morphine that claimed to cure teething troubles in infants. The streets and newspapers were flooded with advertisements making spectacular claims to get customers to open their wallets. Retailers could straight up lie to customers and get away with it. So the notion of treating customers with any kind of respect was revolutionary.
Making Customer Service Right
Now don’t come away from this piece thinking that I’m implying that companies should ignore customer complaints. Customer service is not a thing of the past. Moreover, just because not all problems are solvable and they don’t all lie solely on the shoulders of your business, doesn’t mean that no issue can or should be fixed.
On the contrary, there are many ways to work collaboratively with your customers to improve relationships and customer service in general. Technology, customer habits, and customer expectations are changing quickly. The parallel phenomena of social channels, smart devices, mobile connectivity, and apps have brought new depth and complexity to the customer relationship.
They have also brought about the ability to meet the customer in new places, at new times. Digital channels, peer communities, social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and more), third-party forums, email, online forms, mobile apps, and SMS are all great places to connect with your customers.
Giving your employees access to the right tools to effectively reach customers in the channels they prefer is key to creating a successful customer experience. In fact, often by listening to your customers through the right channels, you can stem problems before they grow into full-blown issues.
Some Closing Thoughts on Effective Customer Service
Because while your customers aren’t always right, they aren’t always wrong either. Your challenge is to open up the discussion with them and together, make the right decisions for both them and your business.
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