Why is the customer always right? Origin & meaning

'The customer is always right' is often misunderstood, but it's more relevant than ever as CX becomes a key competitive differentiator.

By Kathy Dalpes, VP, Customer Advocacy

Published February 16, 2021
Last updated April 18, 2022

It seems like everyone is talking about the customer these days, but it hasn’t always been a top priority. Long viewed as a cost center by many businesses, customer service has been thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic. With so much uncertainty in the air, we are reaching out to businesses for help more than ever before. Meanwhile, customer support agents are finally being recognized as critical enablers, helping us navigate cancelled flights, delayed shipments, and other emotionally-fraught situations.

Our CX research at Zendesk suggests that customer experience has become a key competitive differentiator for brands — and even a leading indicator of business growth. As a result, terms like “customer-centricity,” “customer obsession,” and “customer intimacy” have become increasingly common throughout organizations, from sales and support teams all the way up to the C-suite.

But this customer-first approach is more of a throwback than a novelty. In fact, it can be traced back to a familiar phrase from the early 20th century.

The customer is always right

‘The customer is always right’ is a popular phrase attributed to a variety of turn-of-the-century American retail pioneers. It's not about doing whatever the customer asks, but listening to customers and going the extra mile to understand their needs.

Who originally said the customer is always right?

The popular phrase ‘the customer is always right’ has been attributed to a variety of turn-of-the-century American retail pioneers, including Marshall Field, Harry Gordon Selfridge, and John Wanamaker.

However, as customer experience futurist Blake Morgan writes in Forbes, the idea has correlaries around the world. For example, Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz, the founder of Ritz Carlton hotels, was using the slogan ‘Le client n'a jamais tort’ (‘the customer is never wrong’) as early as the 1890s.

The customer is always right

Is it true that the customer is always right?

While critics of this customer service philosophy contend that it risks enabling rude or entitled customers, it was never meant to be taken literally. The point wasn’t that customers should always get their way no matter how outrageous their demands. On the contrary, it was to give employees permission to truly listen to their customers.

As the Forbes piece points out, this idea was considered revolutionary at a time when consumer protections were scant and “caveat emptor” (“buyer beware”) was the prevailing philosophy.

Why the customer is always right is often misunderstood

While the general sentiment is still as relevant as ever, what the phrase ‘the customer is always right’ overlooks is that customer service leaders often have more than one customer to serve.

First, there's the customer we all think of — the person who purchases and uses our products and services. Now more than ever, everything we do as business leaders – from virtual events to product updates to Black Friday campaigns — has to serve a real customer need.

Our next customer is the businesses we represent. We like to say that Zendesk is Zendesk’s first and most loyal customer. Because our Advocacy team uses Zendesk’s customer support suite to serve and engage with our customers, every interaction is an opportunity not to simply solve our customer’s problems but to give them such an amazing experience that they want to use the same tools to serve their own customers.

Last but not least, your employees are your customers as well. Some critics of the idea that ‘the customer is always right’ contend that it amounts to putting customers above employees or the business itself, but there doesn’t have to be a tradeoff here. If you treat your employees as well as your customers, and empower them with the technology, processes and creative enablement to deliver truly frictionless experiences, your customers will become advocates for your business.

Set your team up for success

Do right by your customers — help your agents, admins and internal teams do their best work. Zendesk offers robust out-of-the-box tools that are quick to set up and easy to use.

Why is it still said that the customer is always right?

So what does ‘the customer is always right’ actually mean in a digital-first world? It’s still not about doing whatever the customer asks, but going the extra mile to understand their underlying points of friction.

Let’s run through a hypothetical example. Imagine a customer reaches out and says their web chat or bot is broken. A quick glance at their account and it’s clear that there’s a problem with the implementation. One approach is to tell the customer they’re wrong — the product is working fine, they just didn’t set it up properly.

But why? Maybe our documentation could be clearer. Maybe our onboarding emails or in-product messaging could be improved. Assuming the customer is always right is about assuming responsibility for our own customer experience.

While every business is different, here are some guiding principles to ensure that you’re leading with a customer-first mindset:

  1. Be where your customers are

    In the digital customer service age, customers expect to be able to reach you on the channels most convenient for them. That still includes phone and email, but it increasingly means being available on the messaging apps customers already use with friends and family, and via live chat and messaging on your own websites and mobile apps.

    At Zendesk, we’ve seen a massive uptick in customer support tickets on social messaging channels since the start of the pandemic, with a 101% surge on WhatsApp alone, according to our latest data.

    Your customers are already getting the message about messaging. It’s time to join the conversation.

  2. Know who your customer is

    As businesses adopt new channels for customer engagement, they will need to maintain a unified view of the customer. Imagine a long-time, loyal customer walking into the Ritz Carlton or Selfridge’s back in the day, giving their name to the person behind the desk, and being treated like this was their first time walking through the door.

    In an age where customer loyalty is more important than ever, businesses can’t afford to sacrifice personalization for scale. This, of course, is where data comes in.

    According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, 71% of customers expect companies to collaborate and share data internally so they don’t have to repeat themselves.

    Leaders need visibility into customer data across channels to both serve individual customers with relevant information and to quickly address emerging trends and challenges across their entire customer base — and their business as a whole.

    This way, when a CX leader sees their customer service team falling behind on ticket resolution, for example, they can promptly test potential solutions and implement the one that makes the most impactful change for agents and customers.

  3. Deliver a conversational experience

    When businesses are available on their customers’ preferred channels and deliver a seamless experience across them, true personalization becomes possible.

    But it’s also just about being personal. A good conversation, whether it's with friends, family, colleagues, or businesses, flows seamlessly across channels and devices.

    With the right tools, your employees— remember they’re customers too! — should be able to deliver true conversational experiences across all your customer touchpoints.

    When both sides know each other the experience becomes more engaging, more natural, and ultimately, more successful.

Doing it right

More than a century has passed since ‘the customer is always right’ became a rallying cry for customer empathy and love.

While the world may have changed and technology along with it, our goal as customer experience leaders remains the same: Doing it right by the customer.

Set your team up for success

Do right by your customers — help your agents, admins and internal teams do their best work. Zendesk offers robust out-of-the-box tools that are quick to set up and easy to use.

Set your team up for success

Do right by your customers — help your agents, admins and internal teams do their best work. Zendesk offers robust out-of-the-box tools that are quick to set up and easy to use.

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