Is the customer always right?

Updated: Mar 18

Power dynamics, especially in customer service roles, are very difficult to navigate. ‘The customer is always right’ is drilled into us, but how far are we willing to sacrifice our workplace values to meet the customers needs?

A male customer approached the counter with three women, his two daughters and partner. One of the daughters put some make-up on the counter, along with the other items he was purchasing.

“See, this is why women are the lesser sex, because they buy shit like this” he said. His two daughters and partner just stood there and laughed nervously. He seemed to be trying to make a joke but he was also visibly annoyed at them, as his tone was not kind or light-hearted.

I didn’t laugh. But I didn’t say anything to call him out either.

I think my face probably told him that I didn’t appreciate the statement, and I remained silent while I put the items through the till. There were other staff behind the counter with me and other customers waiting. Needless to say it was awkward.

When they left, a colleague who was next to me clearly recognised that I didn't appreciate the joke. He didn't join in by laughing along with the customer, or tell me that it wasn’t a big deal and to get over it. I was so glad to have that colleague there to support me.

I didn’t call the customer out. But I didn’t laugh at his sexist comment. By me not laughing, it made the interaction extremely awkward. It would have felt far more comfortable to cave to typical social pressures and just laugh along with his joke.

I was still annoyed at myself for not actively calling the customer out. But making the interaction awkward on purpose was my quiet way of telling that customer what I thought.

Thinking back, I was a young female, with other customers and colleagues around listening, he was in a position of power as the customer, and he also seemed like he could be quite volatile. Upon reflection of the situation I shouldn’t have been so hard on myself.

We all have those moments when we wished we had acted differently or said what we thought out loud.

I think the best we can do is be kind to ourselves in those situations. To remind ourselves that even though it would have been great to call out the behaviour or comments, we might not have changed the person’s mind anyway.

Power dynamics, especially in customer service roles, are very difficult to navigate. ‘The customer is always right’ is drilled into us, and it can be hard to undo that training in our minds. Is there a line that a customer can cross when they are no longer ‘right’?

We don’t have all the answers and can’t tell you where that line is, but it is worth having the discussion with your team if you are in customer service. Collectively deciding what customer behaviour you will and won’t tolerate as a workplace can be a powerful exercise. Having strong shared values that your business stands for can be extremely empowering for staff, as well as bring a great sense of collegiality & support to the floor.

A great place to start can be a group brainstorm to discuss points such as:-

  • What is the worst customer experience you have ever had?

  • How did you feel during and after that experience?

  • What did you wish you had done differently?

  • Did you feel supported by the team or blamed for the interaction?

  • Do you think the experience would have gone differently if you were a different gender / age / ethnicity / sexuality etc?

  • What system could we put in place to prevent this kind of experience happening again?

Alternatively, send out an anonymous survey for staff to complete if you think this will generate more open answers (some people can be worried about sharing those experiences in a group setting).