Customer Service: Are They ALWAYS Right?


I’ll warn you: This post may challenge some ideals you’ve always held dear, so grab on to your desk. Having worked in customer service, I’d argue this post from business consultant Alexander Kjerulf basically articulates things I (read: "me," not necessarily "the Indiana Chamber") have thought for years. Kjerulf asserts that, in fact, customers are not always right — and thinking in those terms could actually be detrimental to your business. He offers his top five reasons customers are not always right. Here’s #1, just to give you a taste:

1: It makes employees unhappy
Gordon Bethune is a brash Texan (as is Herb Kelleher, coincidentally) who is best known for turning Continental Airlines around “From Worst to First,” a story told in his book of the same title from 1998. He wanted to make sure that both customers and employees liked the way Continental treated them, so he made it very clear that the maxim “the customer is always right” didn’t hold sway at Continental.

In conflicts between employees and unruly customers he would consistently side with his people. Here’s how he puts it:

When we run into customers that we can’t reel back in, our loyalty is with our employees. They have to put up with this stuff every day. Just because you buy a ticket does not give you the right to abuse our employees . . .

We run more than 3 million people through our books every month. One or two of those people are going to be unreasonable, demanding jerks. When it’s a choice between supporting your employees, who work with you every day and make your product what it is, or some irate jerk who demands a free ticket to Paris because you ran out of peanuts, whose side are you going to be on?

You can’t treat your employees like serfs. You have to value them . . . If they think that you won’t support them when a customer is out of line, even the smallest problem can cause resentment.

So Bethune trusts his people over unreasonable customers. What I like about this attitude is that it balances employees and customers, where the “always right” maxim squarely favors the customer – which is not a good idea, because, as Bethune says, it causes resentment among employees.

Of course there are plenty of examples of bad employees giving lousy customer service. But trying to solve this by declaring the customer “always right” is counter-productive.

We ask you to offer your thoughts on this in our comments section, but please read Kjerulf’s entire post first as there are some very worthy anecdotes.