Article | 8 min read

5 reasons why the customer is always right in 2022

'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 September 7, 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 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.

Origin of 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. 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 slogan is not about doing whatever the customer asks, but about 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.

Who said the customer is always right?

Marshall Field, Harry Gordon Selfridge, and John Wanamaker pioneered the popular phrase in the early 1900s. Field founded the store Marshall Field and Company in Chicago, while Wanamaker opened the first department store in Philadelphia. Selfridge owned London’s Selfridges store and is credited with inventing the slogan in the UK. It’s still uncertain who was the first to coin the phrase. But it’s clear that these successful retailers all had one thing in common: they championed the importance of putting the customer first and realized the impact satisfied customers have on the bottom line. 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.

Today, business leaders like Jeff Bezos have echoed the slogan at their own companies. For instance, Bezos said, “We’re not competitor obsessed, we’re customer obsessed. We start with what the customer needs and we work backward.”

The customer is always right

5 reasons why the customer is always right today

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 were. On the contrary, it was to give employees permission to truly listen to their customers.

Here are a few reasons why the phrase is still relevant today, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022.

1. Meeting customers’ standards gives you an edge over the competition

Customers have high standards, and they’re willing to give their business elsewhere if their expectations aren’t met. Over 60 percent of customers say they would switch to a company’s competitor after just one bad customer service experience. Make it more than one bad experience, and that number snowballs to 76 percent.

2. Happy customers lead to better retention metrics

Whether you’re a well-established business or just starting to scale and grow, wowing customers can boost retention and increase sales among your existing customer base. In fact, 60 percent of business leaders say that good customer service improves customer retention, while 78 percent agree that service agents play a vital role in customer retention. 47 percent also report an increase in their ability to cross-sell due to good support.

3. Satisfying your existing customer base can help you attract new customers, too

For companies that succeed at meeting the needs of their customers, the opportunities for growth are immense. So much so that 64 percent of business leaders say that customer service has a positive impact on their company’s growth. That’s because happy customers are more likely to refer their network to your business.

Customer service is also a top consideration for customers when choosing companies to buy from, with many customers shopping with a service-first mindset. 93 percent will spend more with companies that offer their preferred option to reach customer service, while 90 percent will spend more with companies that personalize the customer service they offer them.

4. There is a direct link between happy customers and business performance

With consumers having more choices to give their business to than ever before, the way a company treats its customers is now a key differentiator in the eyes of customers and companies alike. In fact, 70 percent of customers say they have made purchase decisions based on the quality of customer service alone. It’s no surprise that 73 percent of business leaders report a direct link between their customer service and business performance.

5. Loyal customers are less likely to churn

When businesses invest in their customers and make them feel like a priority, they can build customer relationships that last through difficult times. In fact, 74 percent of customers say they will forgive a company for its mistake after receiving excellent service.

Is it true that the customer is always right?

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.

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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-percent 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 percent 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.

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