A frequent flier with an airline often complained about the airline’s operations, and after every flight, would write to them detailing some complaint. The staff passed her concerns on to the airline CEO, who 60 seconds later, sent a curt reply to the woman: “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.”

Today, the phrase, “The customer is always right” is used to tell customers that they’ll receive the best service at that business, and to tell the staff to always offer the best service to customers. Ironically, the phrase leads to poorer customer service, and businesses need to let it go once and for all.

Here are five reasons why:

1. Employees are unhappier

Gordon Bethune was responsible for the complete turnaround of Continental Airlines. The full story is told in the book, From Worst to First, because that’s exactly what he did.

Bethune wanted employees and customers to be comfortable with the treatment from Continental, so he announced, “‘The customer is always right’ had no place at Continental.” If there were complaints between his staff and unruly passengers, Bethune took his staff’s side.

He is quoted saying that when there are passengers who cannot be won over, the airline takes the side of its employees. No passenger has a right to maltreat employees just because they bought a ticket.

“For every three million plus passengers that travel with the airline monthly,” he continued, “there will be a handful of irrational, difficult brutes. You must choose between supporting your employees – those who work on a daily basis to make your product better – and those making unreasonable demands.”

2. Combative customers get an unfair advantage

If customers know that they are always right, obnoxious customers will make unreasonable demands, fully knowing they can get away with it. This makes an employee’s job more difficult, as they try to rein in someone who has an advantage over them.

The maxim essentially promotes giving preferential treatment to abrasive, irrational customers, even compared to the nice ones. And that is counterintuitive. You want to be nicer to those who are nicer so that they can keep coming to your business.

3. The business is better off without some customers

While more customers is often a good thing, some customers are just bad for the business. ServiceGruppen, a Danish IT company, tell a story about how one of their technicians went to a client for a routine maintenance job. On arrival, the technician was badly treated by this customer. That customer’s contract was immediately cancelled. They fired a customer who was being abusive to their employee.

It’s not about making more or less money; it’s about recognizing the importance of treating employees with dignity and respect.

4. Leads to poorer customer care

Hal Rosenbluth of Rosenbluth International (travel agency now under ownership of American Express) takes employee loyalty even further in his book, Put The Customer Second: Put Your People First and Watch ‘Em Kick Butt. Hal argues that putting your staff first allows them to put your customers first. Loyalty to employees results in a happier staff, and a happier staff offer better care because:

  • They are more motivated and energetic at work.
  • They pay higher consideration for customers as well as other staff.
  • They are more fun to be around, interact, and transact with.

5. Sometimes the customer is wrong

To believe that a customer is right regardless of circumstance is perhaps the greatest betrayal management can perpetrate against their staff. Sometimes customers are wrong, and Southwest does not fly such customers, their CEO says categorically in the book, Nuts!.

The message is clear: put your employees first, and they’ll put your customers first. Richard Branson says, “The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.”

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