Is the Customer Always Right?

With the creation of “shoppertainment” and hyper-attentive customer service, Harry Gordon Selfridge almost single-handedly revolutionized the retail industry. The creation of Selfridges around the turn of the century gave the world a whole new perspective on shopping, as well as the phrase “the customer is always right!”

What Selfridge was probably trying to convey is that a customer’s needs are a retailer’s number one priority. After all, if a shopper has chosen to come to an establishment to empty their pockets, their needs should be entirely catered to. But was Selfridge correct in saying the customer is “always” right?

According to some of the latest literature in business, he was not. Here’s a handful of scenarios where a consumer is not in the right:

  • A shopper tries to argue the price of something clearly and properly labeled.
  • A customer abrasively tries haggle for a better price in a traditional retail store where bargaining isn’t practiced.
  • A customer tries to return something that was heavily used despite the refund policy.
  • A shopper begs for a service that the business clearly does not offer.
  • A client speaks aggressively to staff.

Once, when I was working at an upscale shoe store in my late teens, I served an irate woman who wanted to return a pair of childrens’ shoes four months after buying them. Not only did she not have the receipt, but the shoes were completely destroyed. There was no way to tell if the shoes were in poor shape because of a factory defect, or if the child had simply worn them down. It ended with the customer threatening to take the store to court despite a clear no-refund policy of used shoes after 30 days!

While we would all like to please each and every customer, it’s important to consider the unfortunate truth that certain consumers try to take advantage of the service industry. Giving in to their demands would only mean that their behaviour allows them special treatment, while compliant customers don’t get rewarded.

So how does one handle customers that are “wrong”? Here are some strategies to consider:

1. While your store might see hundreds, or even thousands of shoppers every season, your loyal employees will be with you day after day, possibly year after year. Allowing staff to feel abused by shoppers who act like jerks shows a lack of appreciation. Empower your employees to go above and beyond the call of duty to meet a customer’s needs, but let them know when someone crosses the line. Teach them to politely explain to clients the store rules in case of disagreements, and always give them the chance to call a manager or owner when a customer is being difficult.

2.  Sales should be happy transactions, and not come at the expense of your dignity. Most people are gracious, with the potential of becoming loyal customers that recommend your business. An aggressive shopper looking to take advantage of your service isn’t one of them. Sometimes its important to forgo a relationship with an abusive customer instead of making the sale.

3. Occasionally, a retailer will encounter a nasty client looking for loopholes in their service to get their way – an unreasonable return, for example. The best way to avoid this is by being very clear with your customer service policy. Create discrete but visible signage for a return/exchange policy, at the cash and/or on the receipt. Meet with your employees to tell them what you expect from them in terms of service (with specific examples) as well as what kinds of behavior and demands are unacceptable, and how to handle them.

Meeting customer needs is the foundation of retail, as well as one of the most rewarding aspects. Abusive customers are typically few and far between, but the occasional “unpleasant” encounter is inevitable. Keep your good customers and staff in mind when dealing with difficult people, as they are not always right.

Stephanie Braun

Stephanie Braun

Stephanie Braun is a content writer, fashion enthusiast, and lover of pets. When she's not writing about retail trends, she's travelling the world and learning new languages.