Is The Customer Always Right? [What It Means + Why It Matters]

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Alana Chinn
Alana Chinn

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Is the customer always right?

customer on the phone trying to tease out if the customer is always right at a business

If you’ve worked in a customer-facing role, I’m sure you’ve heard and experienced this notion first hand. And you likely know that the truth is, the customer isn’t always right.

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But that doesn’t mean this phrase doesn’t hold any merit. Let’s discuss how the ‘customer is always right’ philosophy should (and shouldn’t) factor into your customer service strategy.

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What does ‘the customer is always right’ mean?

While ‘always right’ usually translates to ‘never wrong’, this isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to customer service.

Customers aren’t going to be right in every situation. But they are entitled to having support and service teams do everything in their power (within reason) to satisfy their needs.

Here’s some more perspective on this age old question.

Who came up with ‘the customer is always right’?

Marshall Field first introduced the concept when he founded Chicago's first department store, Marshall Field’s, in 1893.

Overseas, Henry Gordon Selfridge followed suit when he opened the first department store in London.

Almost 100 years later, César Ritz introduced the motto to the hospitality industry when he founded The Ritz Carlton Hotels.

His mantra was "Le client n'a jamais tort," which means the customer is never wrong.

In all cases, these pioneers instructed their employees to give priority to customer satisfaction, no questions asked.

Although it was a novel idea at the time, their strategy worked. Customers were not used to being treated with that level of care, and they flocked to both these businesses in response.

Subscribing to the mindset that the customer is always right means that businesses shouldn't spend time questioning the legitimacy of customer complaints.

Instead, employees focus their energy on troubleshooting issues, and delighting customers with solutions.

When you think of ‘the customer is always right’, don’t think of it in the context of ‘customers can do no wrong.’

Here are three reasons why this phrase should hold true.

1. The customer always has the right to have their voice heard.

Customers want to feel like you’re actively listening to their pain points and concerns. That’s why even the angriest of customers deserve to feel seen and heard by a business.

You should always give your customer the platform to share their opinions — both the positive and the negative. Customer feedback surveys are a great way to make this happen.

2. The customer always deserves to have their issues resolved.

Your job is to provide a seamless experience for your customers. If there’s too much friction throughout the customer journey, those customers are more likely to churn.

You should always strive to resolve customer issues quickly and effectively. Customer journey mapping can help you proactively mitigate these issues along the way.

3. The customer always has the privilege to feel empowered.

Empowered customers are happy customers. Happy customers are loyal customers. And loyal customers are most likely to stick around and promote your business to others.

You should always create an environment where customers feel comfortable using your products on their own. Knowledge bases and FAQs are two solid places to start.

How to Maintain a Customer-First Mentality

The “customer is always right” way of thinking is all about the customer-first mentality.

Here are a few ways you can lead with this mindset at your business.

Set customers up for success.

Customer interactions shouldn’t revolve around who is right and who is wrong.

Instead, reps should center the conversation around guiding customers down the best path to success and showing them allyship.

In practice, this looks like:

  • Sympathizing with customer pain points.
  • Redirecting the conversation towards more achievable solutions.
  • Acknowledging the customer's frustrations.
  • Reaffirming that you're on their team.
  • Offering up something you can solve.

For example: "I understand that you're not seeing the results you want here — I know that can be really frustrating. However, I really think we should consider X as an alternative solution."

Realign customer expectations.

Customers can sometimes have unrealistic expectations about how a product works. 

These misunderstandings can lead them to become frustrated because they feel like your product isn’t meeting their needs.

It’s important to make sure the customer has full knowledge about how a product is intended to operate and how they can make it work for them.

In practice, this looks like:

  • Zooming out on the goal to ensure everyone's working together.
  • Helping customers understand what they need to change to ensure their expectations are met.

For example: “It looks like you’re having trouble with our analytics tool. Can you clarify what you’re hoping to gain? Then we can figure out where the disconnect may be.”

Build a customer-centric culture.

Even if a customer is technically not correct, maintaining a customer-centric culture is crucial.

There are going to be times when the customer isn’t right, but it’s still important to understand where they are coming from.

In practice, this looks like:

  • Aligning with them during customer calls.
  • Provide insight and concrete action items you can take together.
  • Putting their needs first regardless of right or wrong.

For example: “I understand you’re frustrated about this issue, and it’s not your fault. It’s us against the issue — let’s start with X so we can tackle this together.”

Be as straightforward as possible.

Dissatisfaction can sometimes stem from confusion.

A customer may not understand how to use a product, and their confusion can lead them to believe that it’s malfunctioning.

Situations like this require extreme clarity.

In practice, this looks like:

  • Confirming whether or not the customer understands what’s going wrong.
  • Taking the time to provide in-depth insights for the customer.
  • Sharing helpful information and resources for further education.

For example: "I found this topic confusing at first, too, but this article was really helpful for me. If that doesn’t help, I have a couple of other resources we can try."

Understand that customer experiences can vary.

Every customer has a right to voice their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about whatever is frustrating them.

And in most cases, the customer has one idea based on their individual experience that is very real to them. It’s important to acknowledge that.

In practice, this looks like:

  • Recognizing that each customer experience is real and valid.
  • Actively listening to the specific issue or situation at hand.
  • Not directly comparing one customer’s journey to another.

For example: “I see where you’re coming from, and you’re making some really good points. It sounds like X might make the most sense for you moving forward.”

The Bottom Line

There will always be a never-ending debate over the ‘customer is always right’ strategy. But it's a balance between taking time to understand customers’ issues and providing them with solutions that will bring the most success.

What was true for early retail pioneers is still true now: customer retention revolves around solving customer issues, even if they aren't always right.

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