“The customer is always right!” is an adage that’s lasted over a century, wriggling its way into nearly every industry and spreading like wildfire through cultural awareness. But over that century, the relationship between customers and businesses has changed a lot. For example, the advent of social media means customers and businesses are interacting in entirely new ways, and accountability is higher than it’s ever been. So does the old adage hold true? Or have businesses in the modern era found that the customer really can be wrong?
The Origins (and Myth) of “The Customer’s Perpetual Faultlessness”
No one knows who actually coined the famous customer service motto first, but, according to Forbes, the customer-centric approach was pioneered by Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field back in the early 1900s. Selfridge, Wanamaker, and Marshall were retail magnates at the turn of the century, creating massive enterprises of historical significance that would later become part of brands that still exist today, like Sears and Macy’s. Back then, the customer “always being right” wasn’t literal, but a reminder to always treat customers like their opinions and needs mattered– a novel idea in that day.
The idea to prioritize consumer satisfaction translated into accelerated returns. Customers were used to haggling for deals, dealing with selective favoritism, and having little recourse for bad service. So the idea that a businesses would provide VIP service for all, aiming to make sure every customer walked away happy, was explosively popular.
The free market took it from there, with businesses around the world soon jumping onto the customer service bandwagon with the hope of higher profits. That’s when “the customer is always right” took on a life of its own, spreading through other languages and cultures to become a globally recognized phrase. In Spanish, they say “el cliente siempre tiene la razón,” (the customer always has a reason), in French, “Le client n’a jamais tort” (the customer is never wrong), and in Japanese, “okyakusama wa kamisama desu” (the customer is a God). Each sentiment is a little different, but they all mean roughly the same thing:
Not that customers are incapable of being wrong, but that it is better for business to make a customer happy than to take advantage of them.
Does it still hold true in 2023? Is the customer always right?
Well… no. And yes! Let us explain.
It’s been decades since customer service principles were integrated into businesses around the world, and there’s another saying that’s relevant here: “people can get used to anything.” Modern consumers aren’t as impressed by good customer service because they’ve come to expect it. Today’s consumers also have advantages that plain didn’t exist before, such as the power to share their experiences with a business to a massive, worldwide audience through social media. For this reason, customer service standards are higher than they ever were back in the early 20th century.
But even with all that modern businesses do to make their customers happy, there are still times it doesn’t work. In 2023, companies understand that the strategic value of making every customer happy can only be extended so far before it becomes a detriment. So rather than letting the customer “always be right,” businesses are now creating protocols for when customers are wrong.
The truth is, today’s businesses are not as permissive on customer behavior as those of the past. In 2023, companies aim to strike a balance– while they’re still professional, they’re not about to throw away company principles to make one customer happy. Yet, these companies still care about their customers. In 2021, the global customer experience management market reached US$8.79 billion and is expected to grow 18.1% every year from 2022 to 2030. Modern companies definitely want to deliver excellent customer service; they just aren’t willing to allow disruptive behavior or even mental and physical abuse of their staff to do it.
The difference is that modern businesses have learned to handle unreasonable customers with conflict resolution, not blind adherence to a century-old customer service principle. Rather than giving customers whatever will make them happy, customer service reps in the modern era are trained to listen patiently, remain neutral, and try to arrive at a conclusion that is satisfying for both parties. The good news is, conflict resolution actually helps companies to build their reputation and retain more customers!
Ultimately, the customer is no longer “always” right. But modern companies show their true colors in how they calmly handle a customer that’s wrong: by investing in mutual respect.
Here at Visa Business Plans, we know how to strike the right balance, so that everyone – client and company – feel respected and satisfied. Contact us today to experience our first rate customer service!
Visa Business Plans is led by Marco Scanu, a certified coach from the University of Miami with a globally-based practice coaching Fortune 1000 company executives, entrepreneurs, as well as professionals in four different continents. Mr. Scanu advises clients on turnaround strategies and crisis management.
Mr. Scanu received a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration (Cum Laude) from the University of Florida and an MBA in Management from Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. Mr. Scanu was also a Visiting Scholar at Michigan State University under the prestigious H. Humphrey Fellowship (Fulbright program) with a focus on Entrepreneurship, Venture Capital, and high-growth enterprises.
At present, Mr. Scanu is the managing partner and CEO at Visa Business Plans, a Miami-based boutique consulting firm providing attorneys and investors with business planning services in the areas of U.S. and Canadian immigration, SBA loans, and others.