This is, as you might expect, something of an American saying. It was probably started by Marshall Field in the early 20th century, as his philosophy in running department store in Chicago. It’s true that Selfridge (of Selfridge’s fame) had a similar philisophy and Cesar Ritz declared that the customer was never wrong. So the sentiment was not unknown in Europe, however it’s the American service industry that has taken this expression to extremes.
It was probably meant as a way to empower employees to treat customers well, but in some cases it’s become a mantra empowering customers to behave badly.
For example the famous video of the woman who missed her flight at Hong Kong airport, she’s a customer so, according to this slogan, it’s right that she behaves like child and throws a major tantrum? I don’t think so. I get that she was upset but an adult throwing a tantrum? And the staff had to deal with that!
Not all employers are buying into this slogan any more, there has been a rash of “fire your customer” mentality but that’s going too far the other way. Although there’s a lovely, and possibly apocyphal story of Herb Keller of South West Airlines doing just that.
The story goes that when a customer wrote one too many letters of complaint and stumped the customer service team who work hard to answer every enquiry they pushed the letter, and the folder of previous letters up to Herb Keller, then CEO. He answered it in three words “we will miss you”. (read the story here, scroll down).
Whether the story is true or not it does indicate that we recognise a line across which the customer is not right – or at least perhaps those of us who’ve worked in customer service, and genuinely tried to serve customers, know that it cannot always be true.
image from teamstickergiant via flickr