The founder of the department store Selfridge's in London was the one who said: "The customer is always right."
Apparently, he started using the phrase, and included it in his advertising, to show customers that they would always get good service at his department store, that his store would bend over backwards to provide customer service no matter what.
It was also used in-house to "train" employees to give good customer service.
Unfortunately, he was wrong.
We have to recognise that some customers are just bad for business.
One of our legal clients realised that their client list contained many clients who spent little but took a lot of time to service. Most of this time was spent in answering questions about fees, not in billable work. Most of these clients took so long to pay that the cost of servicing them was bigger than any gain.
We walked them through "firing" these clients and through their vision statement, defined the type of clients that they enjoyed working for and were good for business.
Sometimes, these customers being "bad customers" is not even about a question of money.
We have ourselves fired clients because they were rude to our staff - it was a simple matter of respect. When there is no mutual respect, there is no relationship worth fostering for money.
It's not true that "the more customers the better", in fact, some customers are bad for business.
What you should be aiming for is "the more of the right customers the better."
In fostering a "customer is always right" mentality, your business can also give abusive customers an unfair advantage over the business, and over more deserving customers.
A garage owner found that his mechanics were so ground down by the constant abusive complaints of one customer that they spent an inordinate amount of time on his car whenever he brought it in. It was to no avail because the customer always found fault and was loud in telling them what it was.
All this attention to this customer meant that they lost time in attending to other customers - and may even have cut corners. On top of that, this customer got everything they wanted, including discounts on the bill.
It just wasn't worth it. Abusive people getting better treatment than nice people just isn't right.
Let's face it, some customers are just plain wrong!
Some customers lie to get better service. Some customers ignore your advice and then demand you fix it. Some customers insist on pushing their own values on your employees, even when these values are clearly against your own.
One of our clients is an Aboriginal service company. They found that one customer was always fond of telling them racist jokes, and when demanding better service made racist inferences.
At first, they tolerated it because it was never overtly racist, but then the frequency of it happening made them realise she was being so casually racist as to be racist.
When your customers have no respect for your business' values, they are not always right.
In fact, if your employees are being insulted and you decide to side with the customer on the philosophy that the customer is always right, this could actually result in worse customer service.
Because customers abusing employees make employees unhappy.
When your employees are unhappy, they work below par, they are not motivated to provide the best result for the customer or the business, they leave and take their experience with them, they feel unsupported and in turn, will be disloyal.
A retailer in Sydney told us that in complaints from customers - unless there was clear evidence of wrong-doing - he always sided with the employee.
The way he put it was that "just because you buy something from us doesn't mean you own us."
"We deal with hundreds of people every day and while most of them are nice people, one or two are going to be unreasonable and my employees have to deal with them on a daily basis. When you have to choose between people you work with every day and the one or two who slides in to buy one thing and abuse your friends, who would you choose?"
In fact, it has been shown in research that when a business puts employees first, they, in turn, put customers first.
Supported employees are happy at work. Employees who are happy provide better customer service because they reflect how they are treated and care for others, including customers. Happiness at work gives them more energy and motivation to do well.
When the customer is put first, no matter what, it sends the message that the employees of the business don't matter.
Should this become the culture of the business, employees stop caring about service, why should they?
Ultimately though, when a valuable and valued customer has a valid issue, and they are polite and respectful in voicing their issue, it is not a matter of choosing between the customer and the employee and both the business and the employee should be motivated to resolve that valued customer's issue.
A simple question is "what would you like us to do to resolve this?"
Such a customer will be reasonable in answering this question and not demand an unfair advantage. A reasonable answer will allow you to reset the relationship and move ahead stronger.
The customer is not always right.
The right customer builds value in your business and the right customer will always deserve the right customer service.