If the customer is always right then something’s wrong

David Chartrand

David Chartrand

Last October, a server at Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Kansas City found this note written on the back of a customer’s credit card receipt: “We cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to GOD. Queers do not share in the wealth of GOD, and you will not share in ours.”

Last February, an Applebee’s customer in St Louis wrote this on a server receipt:  “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?”  And a table of St. Louis Red Lobster customers became irate at a waitress who filled their water glasses too often. One of them threw a water glass that struck the waitress in the head.

It may be time to beef up the security in our restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores. Better yet, it’s time for an overdue look at the theory that, “The customer is always right.”

Sometimes the customer is wrong.  Sometimes the customer is intolerant, irrational, and insufferable. Sometimes he is an experienced manipulator and incurable penny pincher who knows how to use crankiness to negotiate a free dinner, or free bar tab, or a free hotel room.

It works, too, especially in retail markets where management considers image more important than service. This economic calculus holds that at least one employee must walk the plank for each customer complaint. The customer’s rightness or wrongness is inconsequential. A single, random outbreak of customer displeasure is a blaspheme on company reputation that can be absolved only by human sacrifice, unless said human suffers fatal head injury from glassware weaponry.

There are, of course,  two sides to every complaint.  In the competitive retail world, however, the only side that counts is the customer’s. The other side belongs to a victimized hostess or server who receives due process only after receiving reprimanded, probation, or termination. None of this improves customer service, of course, but, hey, you can’t make everyone happy.

Customers can be wrong in many ways. The chronic complainer is never happy and lets everyone hear about it. The oscillator can’t make a decision no matter how many dresses or shoes she is offered. The escalator insists on speaking to a supervisor for any triviality, including room temperature or a wobbly table.

Few of these are first-time offenders. The grouch who snaps at a 17-year-old McDonald’s cashier has done it before. The pushy regular is a serial saboteur who berates bartenders for forgetting to remember the name his favorite premium label — then goes home to personally report this transgression to the company CEO.

The wrongest of all customers, however, is the liar. This customer will invent any tall tale to get a better price. The liar orders chocolate birthday cake with white icing but insists later that it was the other way around, and demands a freebie.  He mentions non-existent competitors with non-existent lower prices. The retail fibber seems happy and satisfied,  24 hours before cancelling his order.

Lying can be treated or punished. Meanness, however, is legal in most states. The cruel are addicted to the submission and groveling  of others; they are turned on by mouthing off.  Liars thrive in service establishment who believe that the customer is right with or without facts.

“The customer is always right” has survived without facts.

It is a modern bastardization of a sales theory championed by upscale 19th century Chicago retailers in an era when listening to customer suggestions was considered a novel concept. Department store moguls hungry for affluent customers exhorted sales staff to a higher level of customer satisfaction. Marshall Field is credited with coining the phrase about customer rightness.  He also coined, “Give the lady what she wants,” although close associates swear that what he actually said was, “Give the rich lady what she wants.”

Whatever Field said, the novelty eventually wore off. From Michigan Avenue to Main Street USA, busy retailers gradually discovered that customer misrepresentation is part and parcel of flourishing business.

Modern marketing gurus no longer preach, “The customer is always right” without a careful amplification. The currently accepted parsing holds that, “The customer thinks he’s always right because he is a spoiled consumer who has never been told NO. Treat him kindly, take his money, and never trust him.”  This clarification, sadly, is too wordy for the company mission statement or the cheer banner in the employee break room.

Anti-gay epithets and physical violence are, of course, extreme examples of customer intolerance. The typical retail curmudgeon thrives more quietly, thanks to retailers using the “punish and terrorize” method of personnel management. If the customer was right then someone was wrong. The wrongdoer — a server, hostess, bus boy, chef, anyone within earshot — is identified and eliminated regardless of factual evidence or availability of witnesses. The only good employee is a frightened employee, and they are easy to spot.

The frightened employee shuffles nightly across a floor of thin ice, glancing over left shoulder and right, toiling in hourly dread of being tossed under the bus for screwing up one of the food orders he juggles in a 10-hour shift with a 10-minute break. He knows that a single customer whine receives more attention than a litany of employee concerns about making ends meet with a job that relies on customer tips rather than employer wages.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the screeching wheel gets a free meal and drinks on the house.

Lastly, the intimidated employee has done the math. If every customer is always right all the time, then every customer is your enemy and the management is your executioner. Any smiling face on any given night might belong to a closet complainer, oscillator, an escalator, or liar. Or all four.  Such workplaces are not livelihoods, they are battlefields.

The irony is that thin ice takes no prisoners. Management by customer terror creates demoralized workers who soon lose interest in the job and the customer. This creates high turnover, which creates decline in service quality, which creates … angry customers. The circle is unbroken.

Is the customer right?


The customer is always right, however, when management is always wrong.



© 2014, David Chartrand

David Chartrand writes humor and commentary from his home in Olathe.

One Response

  1. Hi Chuck – I love your website and love that I can keep up with what is going on in the Olathe area but mostly I am using your site to keep up with the Obits. You changed the format by listing all the people who have passed in alphabetical order so that everyday you have to read the whole list and figure out who are the recent ones. It would be so much better if you keep them in order by date and then maybe move them into an alphabetical list. When you get to be over 60 you need to check every day to see if you are on the list. LOL – Have a wonderful day and thank you for keeping us informed.

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