Is the customer always right?

“The customer is always right” is a defining mandate at the very foundation of the retail industry. While it’s a phrase that strongly influences the customer-brand relationship to this day, it is a philosophy that oversimplifies the relationship being built, and is realistically outdated.

Instead of handing the absolute power of authority straight to the customer, businesses need to look at their customer support model and ensure it is operating in a way that guarantees that the customer always feels valued, before writing off who’s right and wrong.

The philosophy of customers being right

While it’s unclear who coined the actual phrase “the customer is always right,” at the turn of the 20th century, Marshall Field and his protege, Harry Gordon Selfridge — both considered to be pioneers of customer service in the retail industry — were advocates of the idea.

When Selfridge started his chain of stores across Great Britain, he raised the bar in terms of customer service in retail. By operating under the guise of ‘the customer is always right,’ Selfridge put the needs of the customer above the needs of the business and at a time when shoppers were faced with increasing choice, he gained their trust and created a reason for them to return to the store.

Slowly other retailers cottoned onto the idea and the rest, as they say, was history. But today we are seeing businesses rebel against the old age philosophy, claiming the customer is not always right — Domino’s is an example of where the phrase has been taken advantage of by customers and is now hurting the bottom line. Pledging refunds for dissatisfaction, customers have been taking advantage of Domino’s duty to make customers happy, by finding the smallest faults to warrant refunds.

What being right means for online retailers

“The customer is always right” wasn’t always meant to be taken literally. In a sense Fields and Selfridge were trying to make their customers feel valued — so it’s unfair of us to interpret the statement at face value. While businesses always need to ensure their customers feel heard, a literal interpretation of “the customer is always right” in an age of decreased face-to-face interaction and technology, is simply no longer possible.

But we’re getting beside the true pain point here, it no longer matters whether the customer is right or wrong, instead, it’s about how they feel. Customer service plays a huge role in influencing buying decisions, and customers have any number of online platforms from which to voice their opinions. Regardless of the issue or the outcome, businesses are remembered for how they make their customers feel; and the customer has the power to share the conversation, and their opinions, with the wider public — especially given they’re already online, all it takes is a quick share or screenshot.

The importance of the right tools in the digital age

Giving the customer an option to share feedback and engage with a brand plays a large part in empowering their voice and making them feel heard, but it’s not always as easy as it seems. With so many channels, retailers can become inundated with requests and complaints — so it definitely pays to roll out a platform that consolidates and prioritises each customer based on their requests.

So, what can be done to ensure the customer feels valued while ensuring service representatives are empowered to do the best work possible? The right tool that brings together all the customer context for the service representative can make a world of difference for the customer as well as the service representative. Teams can only provide personalised support if they have the right data about the customer in front of them. In many cases, current customer support models are more focused on internal procedures and clarity rather than meeting and valuing the needs of the customers. This results in frustrations from both sides — the customer and the service representative.

With more options available to them than ever, customers won’t settle for average service, particularly online where there’s more choice than ever. While they have higher expectations and demands, when these needs are met successfully, they have an unlimited audience with which to sing your praises.

Sreelesh Pillai, General Manager, Freshworks Australia

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