The Customer is Always Right - Right?

 Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles via

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles via

Please enjoy this post by Sarah Barton, who serves as Senior Analyst & Grant Specialist

Having served in several different industries, I have heard this phrase repeated often, “The customer is always right.” It is sometimes reworded, but the message is always the same - customers get preference over employees. When used improperly, this sentiment hurts; it hurts the employee, the business, and even the customer.

The fact of the matter is that sometimes the customer is wrong. Sometimes we have to stick to our guns and do what we know is best for everyone. So how do we prevent this phrase from being used improperly in our organizations? We have to plan ahead in order to make sure both our customers and employees are treated fairly in tough situations.

I served as the registrar at a university, so I understand that telling individuals they cannot bend the rules or change the consequences of their behaviors is tough. Telling angry people that you cannot bend the rules or change the consequences is even harder! When I needed to explain to a student why a course in his major had to be repeated or to another why she would not be able to take classes full-time due to academic suspension, I quickly learned the value of well written policies and procedures.

As registrar, I relied on our university catalog to handle tough customer situations, and your business or organization can easily translate your policies and procedures into a valuable document as well.

There are two parts to a strong policy and procedure manual: (1) the policy, which explains why the organization must follow a particular procedure, and (2) the procedure itself, which describes how the organization completes tasks in order to fulfill the policy. When strong policies and procedures are in place, everyone can react to difficult situations in a predictable manner. And when employees have to come down tough in a situation because of a policy or documented procedure, management can easily back up the employee and help the customer understand why the rule cannot be altered, even in their special circumstance. 

In the long run, having written policies and procedures will result in everyone feeling like they are treated fairly. The employee doesn’t constantly have to defend their actions; management can hold employees accountable for their actions; and the customer learns that all customers are treated in the same manner at your organization, which is fair.

Have you been using the phrase, “The customer is always right”?  If so, you might want to think twice about using it again, and instead create the strong policies and procedures that will allow your organization to boldly proclaim, "We believe that all people have the right to be treated fairly - our customers and our employees.”