The Customer is Always…

The Customer is Always...

It’s probably the most overused expression in customer service:

The customer is always right!

For the longest time, I thought it was complete BS. My reasoning? I’m a customer, and I’m wrong a lot. That’s pretty simple, right?

I assume things that aren’t true and I expect things that aren’t possible. My customers are also often wrong. They claim one thing and I find another.

So, how could this possibly be true. How could the customer always be right?

It’s Up to You

Nobody is perfect, so the literal translation is clearly wrong, but what the best service organizations figure out is that you can choose to make the customer right.

  • If a customer has an unreasonable expectation, you can choose to live it up to it.
  • If a customer mistakenly blames you for something, you can choose to accept it.
  • If a customer’s perception of your value is way off, you can choose to alter it.

You always have a choice when it comes to customer interaction. It’s up to you to make the customer right.

What If I Can’t Choose?

  • If a customer disagrees with one of your core business principles, then is the customer still right?
  • If a customer creates problems for your other customers, then is the customer still right?
  • If a customer becomes unprofitable and is unwilling to change, then is the customer still right?

The answer is an emphatic no, because they’re not your customer anymore. Or they won’t be for long.

And then you have another choice. Will you politely explain your predicament and show them the door, or will you let them leave on their own while complaining to their friends?

I advise you to politely decline to do any further business with them. It’s better to avoid living up to unreasonable expectations than to kill yourself trying.

Sprint famously fired more than 1000 customers back in 2007 with a form letter explaining their situation.

Sprint Fires its Customers

Image courtesy of Gizmodo

It may not have been the best PR move in the world, but I believe they did the right thing. After all, the negative word of mouth from this incident couldn’t possibly add up to 1000 unhappy customers that were also unprofitable. I bet those customers weren’t very forthcoming that they’d been dismissed by Sprint either. That’s kind of embarrassing if you ask me.

The Bottom Line

The customer should always be treated with the utmost respect, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong. Choose to make them right when it makes sense and don’t be afraid to respectfully fire them when it doesn’t.


  1. Good points, Tim.

    The whole “customer is always right” principle takes an interesting turn when I apply it to law enforcement. Believe me, if you want to see a class erupt just try to tell a group of police officers that a “customer” has a right to participate in the law enforcement process when they come to us for aid.

    Admittedly, we are not a for-profit business in the traditional sense but when I teach police officers about service excellence I urge them to accept that we do have customers just as real as any “normal” business. Our service matters to our own bottom line just as much, but our customers are unique in several ways. One of the points I try to drive home, however, is that our customers are not always right in our setting.

    We have federal, state, and local laws that cannot be compromised and we have agency policies and procedures that have only a very limited ability to bend. None of that, however, relieves us of the responsibility to treat each person who receives our attention as if they were a customer in the most traditional sense.

    The least we can do is listen empathetically, ask for input, and then do our best to explain what we can do and why we have chosen a particular outcome for their issue. And yes, look for opportunities to make them right as often as we can.

    • For law enforcement agencies, is the customer an individual person or the community as a whole?

      If it’s the community, then I think they’re always right in the sense that they’ve elected people to pass laws and set the standard for what’s right and wrong.

      “To serve and protect” applies to the individual, but the community as a whole is more important. You have a tough job in that you have to serve both.

      • That’s a good question, Tim, and I think the answer is “both”.

        When I break it to my classes that we have customers I throw out a few examples: victims, other law enforcement agencies, community coalitions, the political body that governs our jurisdiction, my immediate boss (city administrator), our prosecutor’s office, and yes, society as a whole (or even the intangible “being” of “the Law” itself). Basically I believe it’s anyone who benefits from our attention.

        When I say that they’re not always right all I mean is that sometimes they ask for things that we can’t do. It may mean we can’t do something ourselves but we can refer them to agencies who can, but sometimes people ask us for outcomes that no one is allowed to deliver.

  2. Great post. I took on this old truism in a post on my blog not long ago. My take on it was that “The customer is always right about to get another offer.”

  3. Customer satisfaction is a tricky thing. Sometimes you get decent ones who are honest to goodness complaining about the right things, but you got those that harp on the littlest things, even stuff that probably didn’t happen, or was just a tiny incident that fell on one of their worst days.

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