Sunday Reflection – The Massive Failure of “The Customer is Always Right”

Like many people, I started working as soon as I was old enough to do so legally. Mostly summer jobs, mostly retail. Some were better than others, but overall I learned a lot and enjoyed the benefits of having a paycheck for the first time. But the job that really sticks with me, for all the wrong reasons, was from the summer I worked at the front desk for a hotel on the coast of Maine.

It was my very first experience with customers who felt utterly entitled to do anything they wanted. Sometimes this included yelling at a teenage girl for telling them their room wasn’t ready yet – even though they were trying to check in hours before the time rooms were guaranteed to be available. I had numerous customers, generally older white men, who had zero qualms over making me feel awful. I even remember one man’s look of satisfaction as I turned away, fighting back tears, to call our housekeeping staff and try to get his room ready. He thought he’d won. And he had.

Because it wasn’t just that these men would come in and scream at me. It was that our manager would always, always, always, take their side. We were expected to suck it up and take it, no matter what. She would never take my side, never even ask me if I was ok, or if I needed help. All she cared about was making sure that customer was happy. Nothing else mattered to her.

I’ve had a great deal of job experience since then, but that still stands out as the worst.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, because of some really disturbing things I’m seeing online, with so many essential employees being treated like rubbish. Customers are screaming at them, hitting them, spitting at them, or even just refusing to do the most basic actions to keep them safe.

I was at Target the other day, and chatting with my cashier. I asked her if people were behaving themselves. Her answer? “Well, my line has been pretty good.”

That made me so sad. Is that really the most essential workers can hope for? That the horrible things will only happen close to them, not at them?

There’s a lot of reasons why I think customers are being so horrible right now, including toxic individualism and a total lack of empathy. But I also think that the “customer is always right” attitude that has been cultivated for years, is coming to a critical point right now. It may have been originally intended as a proactive and positive thing, to encourage going above and beyond to make customers happy. But like many good ideas, it’s become corrupted into an excuse for lack of courage or leadership.

Sure, there are those occasional managers who support their staff and kick out a rude or abusive customers. But there are still far too many, often with pressure from corporate, who expect the employees to just take it. Smooth it over. Give the customer something free. Give them an apology when they are the one who is wrong.

This isn’t good business. It’s not good management. It has vast repercussions for employees, and for those customers who are respectful and want to complete their purchase without witnessing a meltdown.

Sure, having an unhappy customer is something to care about. But when that unhappiness crosses the line to abuse, there is zero benefit to supporting that behavior. 

That hotel that I worked at? Was in an incredibly popular location where hotels would be booked months in advance. If my manager had decided not to serve someone, to refund their money and send them on their way, they would have had nowhere to go. The only power they had in that situation was the power the manager handed over to them. Because they were “always right”.

I don’t know what my future career holds, but I do know this. I will always hold respect and compassion important. If I ever have employees again, they will come first. And I will never, ever, believe that the customer is always right.

Can we just bin them all?

1 thought on “Sunday Reflection – The Massive Failure of “The Customer is Always Right””

  1. The customer is always right because they have the money and that is all that matters in our society right now. (I need to stop watching the GOP convention). I’m genuinely grateful for those exhausting customer service jobs because they taught me a lot about dignity in humiliating circumstances, but they weren’t as hostile and sincerely dangerous as they are right now.
    Thank you for supporting essential workers who treated as disposable. Let’s all follow your example and check in with them – ask how they’re doing- beautiful!

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