Is the Customer Always Right

Is “the customer is always right” an outdated principle?

While growing up in my parents’ retail business, I heard those five words repeated thousands of times as a statement—no questions asked. They consistently prioritized their patrons’ wishes and opinions above all else. Furthermore, every person who worked in their store got the message.

The foundation for that perspective was gratitude. Constantly reminded that we would not have “a roof over our heads” or “food on the table” without our customers, I knew the importance of creating a positive experience for anyone who walked through the door.

When we were tested to make things right, we considered our customers’ rights.

1. The right to change their minds

Customers sometimes had a change of heart and returned merchandise. They’d usually give their reasons without being prompted, but when we asked why, we did so to gather insights, not to interrogate. Moreover, we did not behave as if we were reluctant to refund their money.

Our primary focus was on serving them better. At times, people would have second thoughts about how much they spent. If they let us know that they were looking for more affordable options, we did not attempt to change their minds. Instead, we welcomed the opportunity to assist them.

2. The right to prompt service

Delays in receiving products and services could be reasonable and expected, but we acknowledged any potential inconvenience. We readily apologized, including when it was obvious that we had done everything possible to attend to them quickly: “I’m so sorry you had to wait to be served.”

If the customer expressed frustration, we took extra measures to compensate for lost time. A special order placed during a busy holiday season, for example, could fail to arrive on time. If that happened, we wouldn’t proclaim, “We warned you that it might not get here!” Instead, we would encourage the customer to select a similar item from our inventory as a substitute in the meantime.

3. The right to do business with our competitors

When customers wanted specific items or brands that we didn’t sell, we helpfully named other sources that sold such products. If we had viable alternatives, we suggested them, but we were never pushy, and we did not criticize their judgement by saying, “We don’t carry cheap lines like that.”

Moreover, we never spoke negatively about our competitors and certainly never hinted not to buy from them.

4. The right to be treated kindly and fairly

Customers always had the right to be treated kindly and fairly. Likewise, we did not allow people to take advantage of us. We occasionally had to draw the line, but we would set a respectful tone by remaining polite and calm.

For example, individuals would occasionally attempt to return gifts that were not purchased from our store, usually because our signature boxes were reused to package items bought elsewhere. In those situations, recipients sometimes needed extra convincing before accepting that the merchandise was not ours. Instead of brushing them off, we welcomed them to look around and answered all their questions. We also suggested where they might be able to return their gifts.

Some might feel that maintaining an overly customer-centric perspective is no longer a wise use of resources, particularly when buyers and sellers don’t meet in person, and unscrupulous people will employ anonymity to bend the rules.

Why bother?

The Right Answer

The tables were turned recently when I decided to add a few dinner plates to my family’s everyday china. Having purchased the set more than a decade ago from a retailer that sold overstocked and discontinued items, I didn’t anticipate having much luck. I was surprised, therefore, to locate the manufacturer’s website and the pattern. Based in England, the company provided a contact form, so I used it to describe my situation and inquire if I could buy directly from them or a U.S.-based retailer.

A second surprise arrived a few days later: a personal email from the manufacturer’s customer service representative. She informed me that her company sold to restaurant suppliers; however, she kindly listed the websites of two customers.

I visited the first website, which had a phone number, and easily reached a sales representative when I called. Hearing an enthusiastic welcome in his voice, I didn’t want to disappoint him with a tiny order or waste his time if he couldn’t sell to me, so I quickly identified myself as a consumer. He replied that he was happy to assist me, and we had a friendly chat while he checked his inventory. To make certain the plates he stocked were precisely the ones I needed, he asked me to measure my dinner plate. Good thing I checked: he stocked a smaller luncheon plate. I could tell he was disappointed, and so was I, but we ended on a happy note and wished one another all the best.

My china contacts could have considered me the wrong kind of customer—a nuisance, really—and not worth engaging. Technically, neither would have been wrong in saying I wasted their time. Nevertheless, I contend that both representatives had the right attitude, and I would further wager that they are the kind of people who aim to make life pleasant and see the glass as half-full.

On a final note, I like my everyday china because it has a timeless quality. So does the saying, “The customer is always right.”

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

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