Is the Customer Always Right?

Here’s my quick answer – “hell no”

customer serviceLet me start by giving you some back story to this post. I read and pointed out on twitter an article from Fast Company – here’s the tweet – @ducttape: Are You Building a Consumer-Facing Company? the customer vs culture debate rages on. The gist of the article is that sometimes you have to bend to make sure the customer is ultimately served. But, a little voice inside my head said – at what cost?

I stated as much and drew a couple exchanges from customer service consultant @tedcoinecustomer is not always right/Rule #1: The customer is always right. Rule #2: If the customer is ever wrong, reread rule #1! and There is a certain surrender necessary in winning customer service. You have to BELIEVE the customer is always right, true or not – to which I owe the timing of this post.

I have no problem whatsoever with the premise of the article, but I’ve come across far too many small businesses that view this age old saying “the customer is always right” as a lone justification for taking abuse at the hands of life sucking customers.

So, here’s my revised and updated small business proclamation – The Right Customer is Always Right. Now, here’s what I mean by that. There is absolutely nothing wrong, in fact there’s everything right, with building a culture of making the customer thrilled at every turn, but you can’t adopt the mentality without two things firmly in place first.

1) You must absolutely set up every communication with the goal of attracting the ideal customer – ideal is a customer that values what you have to offer, values how you offer it, and determines that value is a mutual exchange of such – very much like any healthy relationship. Bad relationships come from misunderstanding yourself and what you really have to offer and the same might be said for attracting customers for the wrong reasons.

2) You must build an experience that does indeed thrill at every turn – from lead generation to getting paid.

With those two qualifications in place you can allow the customer to always be right, because you’ve designed a culture of mutual benefit and your “we won’t rest until its right” policy will serve both of you long term. Small businesses simply can’t afford to attract the wrong kind of life robbing customer and expect to make them thrilled, it’s a nearly impossible task and will be accomplished likely to the detriment of your ideal customers.

So, repeat after me, the right customer is always right – with that mindset the accountability shifts from the customer to you.

Image credit: Torley

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  • Mike Wagner

    I really like how you've tuned up an old saying.

    Like you, I've seen a lot of abuse around “the customer is always right”.

    My motto: the right customer delivered the right customer experience will result in the right customer/business relationship.

    Keep creating…a brand worth raving about,

    • ducttape

      Yes Mike we can't use the word relationship enough can we?

  • Barking Unicorn

    A recipe for driving one's self insane.

  • peterrenton

    Great post John. This is something I think is crucial for small businesses to understand because you simply cannot please all of the people all of the time. If you try you will go broke. Seth Godin wrote a good piece on this a few years ago that I often go back to:

  • DebKolaras

    Excellent position IMHO. I'm the first to advocate exceptional customer service, but in every business model, you must weigh the cost of dealing with customers who seem to make a career out of making people “dance” for them. These customers look for every possible way to get their own edge, but leave the business owner sort of emptied.

    As in any good, relevant relationship, both parties must come away feeling whole, not feeling suckered or undervalued. If that's not how you're feeling with your customer relationships, maybe you're giving just too much for too little in return. Ask for more and maybe consider what kind of customer you really want, then move toward them. The others are just generally not worth having.

    • ducttape

      Hey Deb – without getting too Dr Phil here it is a bit like what people do in their personal relationships too – you have to know what a healthy relationship means for you to have one.

  • DebKolaras

    lol, without a doubt John. Only the healthy ones will last and be symbiotic. The “fogging the mirror” test just isn't enough :)

  • jmcaddell


    I think there's an essence of “the customer is always right” that's getting lost in your discussion of it.

    Perhaps it would be better to say it this way. The customer is always right in his own mind. In other words, when a customer complains or questions, they see their point of view as sensible and valid.

    If we as suppliers don't understand where that customer is coming from, we better figure it out. It's not acceptable to write the customer off as “not the right customer.” (That response is very common among businesspeople–many of whom self-destructively hold their customers in contempt.)

    After we've done that reflection, we may conclude that whatever the customer complained about is not something we are going to fix or address. But we owe it to our business to come to that conclusion after giving the customer the full benefit of the doubt.

    • ducttape

      I like that, I can go with that – there are many layers to this discussion of course, but the main point I think I was making is that if you don't do the first part right, which is where the expectation is set, then it will be your fault when you end up with the wrong customer.

      I've seen many small biz folks so willing to get the order that they underprice their services and wonder why they get beat up by every customer over price.

      Your point is a nice refinement layer though.

  • KJ Rodgers

    The right customer is always right is the same as, “50% of the time, they are right 100% of the time.”

    • ducttape

      Well, not exactly!

      • KJ Rodgers

        Well I knew that John, It was the first thing I thought of when I read that sentence.

  • Susan Martin

    I've just read your post and the comment thread with great interest. I agree John, the first level is to make sure you're putting the right message out there, and making the right promises – the ones you know you can deliver; so you attract the right clients in the first place. Another level is knowing how to handle it when those who are not ideal come anyway, despite accurate messaging.

  • Geoff Dillon

    An interesting post – reminds me of a nice saying I read a few years ago in a marketing book that went something like this:

    “Small businesses are often guilty of giving Cadillac service to their Pontiac customers, and Pontiac service to their Cadillac customers.”

    The premise was that we often spend our time on the customer who is front of us (complaining/arguing/negotiating/and so on) simply because they are there. Meanwhile, our best prospects and clients are not getting our time.

    Better to invest some time proactively in your best clients and prospects through an ongoing marketing/contact strategy than simply allocating time to a client because they happen to be there at the moment.

  • Adil113

    You are right Jhon, I totally agree with you on the point, culture of mutual agreement. It is necessary for businesses to develop this culture to get right customers.

  • coach_bret

    It sounds fine in principle but (my guess is) a majority of businesses have people walk through the door who are not the ideal customer. Notions of the “right customer” and “ideal customer” are more appropriate to service-based businesses that can develop a one-to-one relationship with a client. As a life coach, I now have more discretion to make myself available for the ideal client but that was not always the case.

    As a manager in retail, I trained my staff to realize that the customer is not always right but the customer is always the customer. Then it became incumbent upon us to treat a customer with courtesy and respect and, sometimes, with a lot of patience. That behaviour was also observed discretely by other customers in the establishment and became part of our good reputation as a business.

    Learning the “conversations” that were appropriate for different situations and customer “personalities” enabled our staff to adequately serve customers and maneuver through particular service challenges. I believe that for our staff and for customers (even the difficult ones) it came out to be a satisfying experience. The staff also grew in character and in the ability to handle trying situations even beyond the time they were on duty.

    • ducttape

      Bret – I will grant you that a public retail environment can present a challenge – it does sound as thought your appropriate conversations approach and training is a thoughtful way to get the best possible results.

  • Elgeen

    But honestly, some customers are, for lack of a better phrase, “difficult”. I think there will be some video addressing this topic at

  • Roland Hesz

    So true. I have met customers who live by “the customer is always right” idea, and demand outrageous things and when you say that's not right – No, Sir, you can NOT build the complete CRM system from scratch in 3 days – they state that the customer is always right and you better do it.

    That's the moment when I am prompted to say: I'm incredibly sorry Sir that we are not the company you were looking for. May I recommend you someone else?

    And now I am getting close to actually do it.

  • Everything Counts

    Very thought provoking. I really appreciate and agree with your view points. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jerry

    I have to agree with much of what Brett said. I was a Retail Store Manager for many years and you try to make all situations that the customer will be satisfied. However, there are a few people that should not be allowed to shop especially if they make threats to employees ( Few Customers out of millions).

    Also, if you are skilled and have a few customers constantly returning stuff defective, you can convinced them to shop at your competition and increase his loss.

  • Kris Bovay

    To Roland – I hope you're recommending your competition when you get to that stage! Great discussion on this topic. I believe that you have to go into the customer/supplier relationship looking for a partnership – in a partnership sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong. Provide the best service you are capable of, believe in your service, and believe in the relationship: then make the customer believe.

  • davidhurley

    I guess a good place to start is to qualify your prospects so that you get the customers you are looking for.

    If you are offering advice or mentoring services, then much of that must be based on showing the customer what he or she is doing wrong as a basis for getting things right from then on.

    So “the customer is always right” should definitely be qualified, as should the customer.

  • Justin

    As a small business, the goal is to create an experience so that the only “Customer is Always Right” comment is when they are raving about you and your services to others.

  • RedHotFranchises

    The old saying “The Customer Is Always Right” is not always right, but the tuned up saying “The Right Customer is Always Right” definitely makes clear sense, and should be known worldwide. Gratz John! My Hats off to you.

  • RedHotFranchises

    The old saying “The Customer Is Always Right” is not always right, but the tuned up saying “The Right Customer is Always Right” definitely makes clear sense, and should be known worldwide. Gratz John! My Hats off to you.