The Customer is (Not) Always Right

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No one likes to terminate an employee. In fact, many managers rank firing someone as the hardest or worst part of their job. While it makes sense to do everything possible to retain someone you’ve invested the time and resources into hiring, there comes a time when you just have to show a problem employee the door.

But this article is not about that.

This article is about the one other time management will bend over backwards to make things work; struggle valiantly to smooth things over; or simply refuse to acknowledge what’s going.  I’m talking about organizations that hang onto bad customers long after the relationship has become destructive.

Is the Customer Always Right?

We’ve been taught to believe the customer is always right. And when it comes to teaching excellent customer service, that’s a good premise to start with. Occasionally, customers will interpret this philosophy as a challenge and set out to test just how far they can push things and get away with it. When that happens, things can get confrontational and even abusive.

Confrontation by Jahar Dasgupta, Wikimedia Commons

Three problems emerge when a customer becomes antagonistic:

  1. Employee morale takes a beating when they feel they’re being abused by a customer, but are expected to take it with a smile since “the customer is always right.”
  2. An employer’s responsibility to provide a safe work environment may be breached. Employees have the right to physical and mental safety while working—facing down an out of control customer can threaten both.
  3. Demoralized employees who feel unprotected from abusive customers tend to respond with increasingly apathetic service and, in some cases, resort to sabotage. And it’s not just the customers they retaliate against. If no one steps in to support employees who are abused by customers, managers and the broader company may become targets of resentment as well.

An Ounce of Prevention

The first step in reducing instances of staff abuse by customers is prevention. Here are some key preventative measures that will help reduce customer blowouts.

  • As an organization, commit to providing exceptional customer service and communicate that commitment internally and externally.
  • Insist on open and clear communication internally and with customers to limit misunderstandings. For example:
    • Ensure that everyone in your organization is on the same page when it comes to policies.
    • Make sure front line employees are aware of the measures available to them for addressing customer concerns.
    • When interacting with customers, explain any and all fees upfront.
    • Above all, be consistent.
  • Ensure that employees are supported at all times by competent management staff.
  • Define a clear escalation process and ensure that all employees are familiar with it.
  • Make sure employees are equipped with basic negotiation skills and an appropriate degree of autonomy to resolve problems.
  • Invest in training for employees and managers for all of the above.

Sometimes, you’ve done everything you can to prevent problems. Sometimes your employee has done everything right, but still faces the wrath of an unreasonably irate customer. When that happens, it’s time to step in and protect your employee.  Perhaps the simple act of intervention by more senior staff will be enough to turn the situation around. Even if you find yourself unable to calm the customer, at least you will have preserved the relationship with your employee.

When it’s Time to Fire a Customer

When abuse from a customer becomes the norm rather than an isolated incident, or the level of abuse is simply unacceptable, the toll it extracts from your people is not worth the business the customer generates. Here are some indicators that it’s time to fire an abusive customer.

  1. In spite of all efforts by front line employees and managers, the customer continues to be verbally abusive at every opportunity.
  2. The customer is threatening violence or has physically lashed out. 
  3. The same customer has caused one or more employees to cry, quit, or call in sick.
  4. You’ve had to call the police to remove the customer from your place of business.
  5. The customer exhibits inappropriate knowledge of employees’ personal information (e.g. address, family members, or private contact information).

The best way to keep customers happy is exceptional customer service. The best remedy for an unhappy customer is the ability to deliver an extraordinary recovery when you do mess up. Perhaps the only cure for a consistently abusive customer is a good dose of progressive discipline, up to and including (when appropriate) termination. 


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