"The customer is always right" has a longstanding tradition in customer service.
Pushy customers quote it when they try to get their way. Customer service professionals bristle at the saying because they know it isn't true. Customers are often wrong.
When I was doing research a few years ago for my book, Service Failure, I tried to find the origin of that lousy quote. My goal was to find the person who first said it and maybe send them a box of glitter or something equally horrible.
What I learned was a surprise. It's likely the original quote has been mangled over time. Here's what I learned.
The Origin Story
There's no conclusive evidence as to who first said "The customer is always right." However, the Quote Investigator website does reveal some interesting possibilities.
One contender is the famous hotelier, Cesar Ritz. He is credited with saying "The customer is never wrong," in 1908.
Another contender is the Chicago retailer, Marshall Field. He was quoted in The Boston Herald on September 3, 1905 as saying "The customer is always right."
There are two issues that call this quote into question.
One is a longer version of the quote adds important context (although I can't locate the origin). The longer quote is, "Right or wrong, the customer is always right."
The second issue is a similar quote attributed to another Chicago retailer, Sears, Roebuck, & Co, was published several months earlier in April, 1905: "Every one of their thousands of employees are instructed to satisfy the customer regardless of whether the customer is right or wrong."
The most likely explanation is "The customer is always right" concept predated these quotes published in 1905. I tend to believe the longer version of Field's quote because it adds additional meaning and other stories place its origin much earlier in time. Alas, I can't find any proof of those stories.
Does it matter?
Customers are absolutely wrong at times. To me, the real meaning of "The customer is always right" is our goal in service is to help the customer be right, even when they are technically wrong.
This suggests some specific types of actions:
- Don't argue with customers
- Partner with customers to help them succeed
- Help customers avoid making mistakes
- Be generous in your policies
- Give customers the benefit of the doubt
"The customer is always right" is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of inaccurate customer service quotes and statistics floating around.
The key is to take each one with a grain of salt and understand the true meaning and intent behind them.