Sometimes The Customer Is Dangerously Wrong

“The customer is always right.”

For over a century since Harry Gordon Selfridge coined it, we’ve been stuck with this platitude, and it can be dangerously wrong for the health of our businesses.

It had its place. After all, businesses even today are insanely self-centered, and tend to put themselves and their needs first before the customer. That’s bad business, and no one disputes that who cares about the customer experience and wants to succeed long-term. Reminding people of it with this platitude did serve a role, but as a guide, not an ironclad rule.

The Great Resignation highlights this shortcoming in our thinking, this tendency to take a guide and turn it into an immutable truth. As business managers, executives, and owners, we’ve given lip service – and lip service ONLY – to the platitude that our most valuable asset is our employees.

Except we don’t treat them that way, do we? If they were our most valuable asset, we would not permit bad customers to treat our employees the way they do sometimes. These days, there are many, many occasions where the customer is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong. Is it all customers? No. But you don’t need all customers to act like jerks to ruin the employee experience. It’s like poison – you don’t need to drink a gallon of cyanide – just a little bit will do.

What is our most valuable asset? Based on the way too many companies behave, it’s simply profit, gross revenue. That’s the true priority of many companies. And just as “the customer is always right”, there’s logic to profit as a key priority – a company that doesn’t earn profits goes out of business quickly.

Here’s what we have to do, for those of us in decision-making roles: either act like employees are our most valuable assets and protect them from bad actors, or be truthful and stop saying our employees are our most valuable asset.

If we choose to really prioritize employees as our best assets, then we have to change how we think about training and compensation for customer-facing employees. We have to acknowledge that sometimes, not only is the customer wrong, the customer is dangerously wrong.

What does adapting to this new reality look like for all customer-facing employees?

  • Proper pay for higher levels of risk
  • Proper non-violent crisis intervention training
  • Proper tools and staffing to immediately deal with escalated situations
  • Proper mental health, therapy, and counseling benefits for employees

None of this should be a surprise; we pay employees more to deal with higher risk situations in other industries. We pay more to firefighters when they have to take on special training to deal with things like nuclear and chemical fires. We pay more to waste disposal professionals to deal with toxic and biological hazards. We hire extra security guards to deal with more dangerous situations. We set up additional counseling resources for employees after traumatic events. But instead of these being one-off instances, we have to make them more standardized.

If we want to continue delivering a great customer experience, we need employees who are trained and paid to deal with higher risk situations, and have the tools and access to resources needed to defuse those situations or deter them. We’ll retain our best staff that way and create an environment that ultimately leads to a better customer experience, too – and from that comes the profits our businesses need.


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