in Business

The Customer Is (Not) Always Right

When I was 15 I picked up my first job. I was a bagger at Kroger, a local grocery chain. It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t anything, really, other than a paycheck. That job, and the other retail jobs I had through high-school and my early college years, always started with one of those cheesy customer service training videos.

You know the one: It’s over-acted, usually contains some MIDI background music, and of course, was filmed in 1986.

And one message is driven home more than any other. No, not that you should have offered Mrs. Thomas a Blockbuster VIP card.

It’s the message that the customer is always right.

But having run my own business for a couple years now, that message couldn’t be further from the truth.

The customer isn’t always right. In fact, sometimes they’re wrong, and sometimes you have to tell them that.

Any entrepreneur or business owner will tell you that business is a partnership. With customers, clients, suppliers, agencies, and staff. Successful businesses establish, build, and nurture relationships.

Clients and customers may claim to be right. All the time. They’re not. Keep in mind that they’re human, too. And that none of us, not even the one’s writing your paycheck, always know best.

The trick is to keep an open mind, but remain confident in your expertise. That may involve disagreement. That may mean saying “no” when someone expects you to say “yes”. But when you start compromising yourself for the sake of appeasing someone else, you’ll only lose your own identity in the end.

Listen. Don’t get emotional. Know when to say “no”. Be willing to compromise, while unafraid to stand your ground. And above all, listen.

You’ll find that customers don’t always want to be right. They just want to be heard.

(Photo credit)

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  1. One thing that helps me in customer service is focusing on what you can do.  You may need to say no to a specific request, but that usually isn’t the end of story.  There is usually something else you can do that will get you and the customer to common ground.

    • Yes. Great point, Matt. Being able to say “no” is one thing, but being able to say “no, but…” is much different. Offering other options and ideas is important to achieving common ground.

  2. I totally agree! It’s so hard letting people get away with things like talking down to you or being angry about something that “you didn’t do correctly” when in fact they simply don’t understand and just need a good explanation of how things work. A little telling to, in a nice way ;)

    • The biggest challenge for me has always been separating emotion from business. Being able to listen and offer objective feedback is a skill that must be finely tweaked, but is critical to conflict resolution. A little, “I know you are, but what am I” usually doesn’t pan out very well. :)

  3. Just had this experience myself the other day and you’ve helped me to understand the stance I was going to take is totally justified. We sometimes give way too much leeway to customers in order to make sure they’re happy at the expense of valuing ourselves and our services.

    • Yep. We do. It’s our instinct to appease the people who are writing our checks. I get it. And to an extent, yes, the customer is right. But there comes a point where you simply cannot sacrifice yourself, your position, and your expertise. Learning when to compromise  when to say yes, and when to say no, they’re all skills that have to be finely tuned.

    • In short, by offering options. It’s not about saying “no” and closing the door on them. It’s about saying “no, but…” – and providing options that they may have never considered. Saying no is easy, saying no, while maintaining an open mind and encouraging alternate courses of action? That’s what makes for a great relationship.

        • Of course there’s going to be those. If it gets to this point, you have a couple options:

          1. Compromise – give the customer what they want, get paid, move on.

          2. Stand firm. Say no. And cut your losses. 

          Obviously if you can avoid reaching the point of ultimatum, that’s preferable, but some people are going to have their way, no matter what. It’s up to you to pick your battles.

  4. In our experience, the phrase “the customer is always right” is a phrase the infers respect.  My husband & I both hail from grocery stores jobs as well (maybe thats a entrepreneurial trade mark?) so I understand where you are coming from.

    I think that phrase is from a time when the world was a much different place, where people respected each other and treated each other differently. A time before so many became all for themselves and to heck with anyone else.

    In our experience, with our business, the few times we have had a customer use that phrase was when they were trying to get their way, get more than they paid for our to get out of a binding contract without payment. They did not respect us, but believed that if they used that phrase, we would give in and they would win. 

    Finding the courage to say “NO” in a respectful manner is a must for any business owner.