Is the customer always right?

By: Cate Talaue

How far is too far when it comes to the idea that “the customer is always right?” Drawing from personal experiences, I have had my fair share or rude, obnoxious and downright unpleasant customers, having been in the customer service industry since I was 16. I’ve done it all: cleaning houses, hostess at a restaurant, sales assistant at a clothing store and I am currently a deli clerk at a supermarket. While the environment of each job has changed, the customers and the notion that they are always right remains the same.

At my current part-time job, Loblaws head office insists that employees participate in little workshops called Customer Service Blitzes. These workshops only take up a few minutes of your time while you are working your shift – thanks for the convenience, at least – with one of the Customer Service employees facilitating the group. The takeaway message at the end is that the customers are always our number one priority.

One of the workshops I participated in talked about how as employees of a reputable supermarket that is primarily known for its excellent customer service, we are to leave our personal lives at the door. Moreover, when a customer is less than friendly, we are supposed to “kill them with kindness” and be on our merry way to serve the next customer. The Customer Service employee used the metaphor of a sponge. We are expected to absorb the customer’s harsh backlashes because, and, I quote my fellow employee here, “we do not know what they are going through. They may have had a recent death in the family, they may be sick. In any case, we are supposed to be as kind as possible. Just absorb it, then let it go.”

While the number of kind customers that I’ve encountered definitely outweighs the angry ones, I couldn’t just let go of the things that was said in this blitz. The takeaway message here was: the customers are allowed to have personal lives because they are paying customers. You just work here.

Now I may have taken my interpretation of this blitz a little too far, but let’s think about this for a minute. How many times have you encountered a customer who was absolutely horrid that they made you feel awful about yourself? Maybe you threatened to quit your job. Maybe you cried to your co-workers or even worse, in front of the customer. Or maybe you lost your temper and lashed out on the same customer, or at a different customer who didn’t deserve it. All the while, you get punished for the way you felt because you didn’t adhere to the idea that “the customer is always right.” You put yourself at risk for getting reprimanded by the department boss or the general manager, as well as getting “written up” or in rare cases fired from your job because of your entitlement to feel certain emotions in certain situations.

Moreover, there is no room for reciprocation. I am certainly not allowed to impose my anger or sorrow onto the customer when my personal life has gone awry, but they sure can. They don’t have to be the sponges, but they are entitled to be the water. What this sponge metaphor does in relation to the paying customer is that they are always right at all costs, consequently dehumanizing us as employees serving the customer. We are allowed to feel, but we are prohibited from expressing it. Consider what this constant repression of emotions does to our health, wellness, our job ethic, and our relationships with those around us. Maybe that is what should be talked about in these blitzes, but that’s not going to happen. They not only favour the customer, but also the economic side of the business, consequently repressing the lives and natural emotions of employees in favour of money. When we come to work and leave our personal lives at the door, we are no longer ourselves, we are strictly employees. With this label of being an employee comes objection rather than subjection; being less than human and more of a blank canvas that is painted with unkind words, angry complaints, and unprecedented insults. But anything for the customer, right?

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One thought on “Is the customer always right?

  1. Hi Cate,

    I’m sure a lot of people can relate to your perspective, including myself.

    Like you, I have worked since I was 16 in retail stores, grocery stores, department stores, and every office from government, unions, and educational institutions — people will be always be people.

    In our consumer-based, materialistic society, unfortunately, the truth is that the world does, indeed, revolve around money, and in this case, profits. As an employee, you not only work there, you are being paid to represent the best possible image of the company as possible. To be tactful and to not take things personally.

    It makes me feel better, though, like you said, that for every 10 pleasant clients or customers, there is only 1 irritant.

    Additionally, it is more common to be treated unkindly by the customer, than it is to be treated unkindly by the company (which is far worst).

    As a consumer, I could write about the many times I have encountered less-than-friendly, and downright rude service from many sales associates, cashiers, security guards, and receptionists. Except I would have a valid argument if I were to complain as a customer.

    You’re right in the fact that there is a double standard. But ultimately, if one cannot set aside this view for the overall mission and value of their work or company, they should not be working in customer service.

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