The customer is NOT always right

Post date :

May 9, 2024

History of the saying

There is some debate on the exact origin of this saying but most agree that it was first popularized by the founder of Marshall Fields department stores back in 1893 as a way to encourage his team to focus on customer satisfaction. This saying gained popularity by putting the customers satisfaction at the center of the business to help build trust in the business. Prior to this business tactic, it was very common for businesses to operate on a ‘buyer beware’ basis - essentially saying that once you bought something, the business was no longer responsible for anything after that exchange. If the goods or services failed to deliver the desired (or sometimes promised) outcomes, that was the risk the buyer took and NOT the responsibility of the business. In a time where research and consumer information was nearly non-existent, the approach of backing up the customers claims and satisfaction was a major departure from common practices of the day. This saying and it’s underlying business approach quickly took hold as the prevailing standard for consumer facing businesses across the country. 

This saying has also been quoted as “the customer is always right in matters of taste” - meaning they are entitled to their opinions and preferences, but not to the ownership facts or all the details related to the work. When you shorten this saying, it’s drastically changes the application.

Why this is antiquated - what has changed?

This saying is over 130 years old and predates most of the things we take for granted in our modern world (television, the internet, cell phones and event modern literacy rates). This saying is just out of touch with the way that customers and businesses interact now a days. When the buyer had no ability to research their purchase and could only share their experience with immediate friends and family, the business had the power in the relationship. A company that would openly profess to be putting the customer first, was a welcome change. 

BUT… things have changed. Buyers can quickly and easily research products and companies from anywhere in the world. Your experience with a purchase can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people instantly and price comparison shopping is even baked into many of the online shopping portals we use. Most purchases can even be made without having to interact with anyone at a company (even from the comfort of our couch). 

In short - it’s NOT 1893 any more! The power dynamics have drastically changed and now rest mostly with the buyer and not with the business.

Why do people hang onto this saying?

From a consumer perspective this approach is AWESOME. No matter what the buyer does or how they behave, they are in the right. 

Businesses in competitive spaces are worried about losing customers and buyers going elsewhere if they ‘push back’ on the customer. This creates a fear based behavior where the buyer is incentivized to behave poorly and take advantage of the business. Business Insider reported that this motto actually “create[s] a senso of entitlement among shoppers”. 

Businesses that are focused on selling to anyone vs ‘the right buyers’ are in search of immediate and potentially short term or transactional buyers and they want to be able to say “YES” to as many prospects as they can. So avoidance of pushing back on unrealistic expectations on products/services or pricing is a strategy to push quantity over quality. 


There’s a better way (Accountability, Transparency)

7 ways you can engage with clients that don't require saying yes to every request they make
  • Find the right buyers for your products and services. The minute you start trying to make everyone happy, you are likely going to make you and your team very UNHAPPY.

“If you wan to make everyone happy sell ice cream” - Steve Jobs
  • Set realistic expectations that you can meet and don’t over promise. Research by Todd Caponi shows that customers actually prefer a 4.5-star rated business to a 5-star option. People don’t believe things that are ‘too good to be true. 

  • Set pricing based on your costs and not the buyers desires - The buyers desired price is not relevant to your costs. If you can offer services at a lower price than competitors b/c you have an advantage in your ability to execute at a lower cost, thats great! But set your prices based on your actual costs so you aren’t losing money before you even complete the work. 

  • Be upfront and transparent about what you offer. Give the buyer options and let them choose what is best for them. If there are multiple ways to solve an issue, price them and give options. Explain the benefits of the options available and don’t just push them to the cheapest solution. You’re there to help the buyer, not to save them money. They have a problem and you are potentially the best person to solve it. 

  • Do not take on jobs that you are not a good fit for - educate the buyer as to why you can or cannot meet their needs. If this is a job you aren’t going to be able to execute effectively, decline the work. THIS ONE IS HARD (WE KNOW) but taking on bad fits is just going to end up costing you time and money where you could be working on another opportunity that is a better fit. Don’t waste your time with opportunities that are only going to end up going poorly. 

  • Ask for feedback after you provide service and do something with it. Get feedback from your buyers and incorporate that into your training and services. Even if it’s negative, can you learn from it? 

  • Understand your buyer better (DO YOUR RESEARCH). This is the one that we rarely actually see happening. Businesses take on jobs and new customers with nearly zero information about the buyer. With all the ways a consumer can research a business or product, we highly recommend that you consider adding research into your own process to undercover risks to your reputation or financial issues that might come up from working with the buyer. Even 30 seconds or research into the customers online review behavior, reference checks from other businesses or collecting payment information up front can give you a strong indication of the future behavior of the buyer.