Is the customer always right?

The old adage of "the customer is always right" was first uttered in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the brash American entrepreneur who founded the world-famous London department store Selfridge's. Since that time that mantra has been repeated in almost every service sector profession as if it was handed down carved on a tablet as the 11th commandment.  So the question is after over 100 years of use; Is the customer always right?

The answer is no. The customer is not always right, conversely, they are not always wrong either. The truth is that if the customer is always right, your staff - in situations where the customer and employee are at odds - would always be wrong. Think of the effect on employee morale that would have. The fact is there are actually some instances where sticking to the slogan can actually hurt the business. 

The crucial issue isn't about the power struggle of right or wrong, it is about how we respond to the customer. At the Kimpton Group, renowned for their attention to "guest service" and "employee development," there is a term that is used to define places where the guest and the server may differ on outcomes. That term is "Moment of Truth." The place in which the guest has expectations that something should happen. Take for instance being greeted, we have all heard the immediate greet argument. What happens to a guest who is in a hurry and wants to get started after two minutes, this is a "Moment of Truth." At this point when the minute hand sweeps past two minutes time begins to distort, 3 minutes become 6, 6 become 12, and 12 become a half hour. Ninety percent of the time, when the guest has an issue, they just want to be heard, they just want that issue to be acknowledged and resolved. It doesn't matter if they say they waited 10 minutes to be greeted when it was really 5 minutes - it was too long for the guest. By the same token, the fault could be put on management for not being present and insuring the quick greet. 

There are times when a customers subjective review of taste or temperature or choice of wines by the glass, will not align with the restaurant that you are running. In these cases if the customer chooses to complain that there weren't enough Spanish wines by the glass and you are featuring New World wines, they are wrong but still deserve to be heard and perhaps turned to your side when the explanation is given. It doesn't mean that we should argue with a customer or try to convince them that they are wrong. It does mean that they might not be the right customer for you.

When listening or responding to a guest complaint, it is necessary to hear what the guest is really saying, acknowledging that and promising to do better in the future. If however, the guest just won't be satisfied with you acknowledgment, they might not be the customer you want. They maybe not in alignment with the type of service or food you are putting forth. In these instances, if you stick with "the customer is always right" the overall damage to the business results in lower employee morale and the sense of not being supported. Several successful business models are built on the idea that your staff is your number one stakeholder, not the guest. The guest would be your number two stakeholder. I firmly believe that if you take care of your staff, they will take care of your customer and that will in turn make your third stakeholder - the investor - happy.

No one can be right all the time, including the customer. But it all begins with taking care of the people who take care of the customer and the rest will follow.

Bruce Porterbph2o inc.