Tony Shepherd LL.M.(SYD),A.S.D.A.,A.T.C.L.


Always go to the source. Whether first use of the phrase is attributed to retailer Marshall Field who owned the "Chicago" department store (subsequently renamed Macy's) in the late 1800's, or legendary hotelier Cesar Ritz who proclaimed in 1908 "Le client n'a jamais tort" (the customer is never wrong), one thing is clear - both men attempted to frame a behavioural norm for customer interactions. Their idea was that when dealing face to face with customers, the customer should always be treated with courtesy, respect and patience. It was all about behaviour - high level communication skills, even when customers conducted themselves poorly.

As successful businessmen who both knew how to turn a serious profit, I think they would be horrified to learn how their maxim has come to be literally interpreted and transformed from a shield to a sword. These days it is all too often taken to mean customers can simply ignore or disregard reasonable commercial terms, demand concessions simply because they are impatient or "unhappy", rudely challenge service providers, make other customers uncomfortable, not bother to inform themselves ("I don't read that detail crap"), threaten to unjustly publicise their "experience" and generally, behave like tantrumming 2-year olds.

While these issues present in all industries and professions, I was recently following a LinkedIn conversation in relation to the hospitality industry, so let's use this as an example. Is a customer "always right" to demand -

  • A 9.00am check in, when they have arrived unexpectedly early and unannounced, when the hotel's terms clearly communicate check in time is 2pm (given that staying guests don't have to vacate rooms until 12pm, the rooms have to be cleaned, etc)? or
  • Having pre-paid a month in advance to secure a 50% room discount, simply ring the night before, want to cancel the booking, rebook in a month's time on a different week night and insist upon the 50% discounted room rate applying? or
  • Send a steak back 3 times, declaring "this is not medium rare", insisting it be further cooked to the point that a professional chef points out that the steak is now cooked medium to well done, only to have the customer reply - "Well, that's what I call medium rare"?

Please note the critical word above - DEMAND. I have no issue at all with the customer arriving early or the customer seeking to change a booking respectfully requesting and pursuing these outcomes. My issue is with the expectation that customers have a psuedo-contractual, even statutory right to demand these things because "I am the customer" and worse still, not to get them is then appropriately characterised and publicised as "appalling service".

So, while this topic justifies a book, a few quick guidelines. I would suggest the customer is " always right" and entitled to -

  • Be treated at all times with courtesy, respect and patience, even if the customer's own behaviour and communication skills are lacking;
  • Product and services that match and conform to advertised standards and legitimate customer expectations. If this standard is not met, the customer has every right to seek rectification, refund or alternatives that the customer may suggest and pursue; and
  • Avoid being blindsided by unexpected and disadvantageous terms or contractual minutiae that materially alter the bargain. A simple test - "Would I have proceeded with this transaction had I known this?"

A can of worms, I know, but we must also look to apply a more rational, objective test here - what would the reasonable, informed and articulate customer expect? Otherwise our medium-rare steak customer can subjectively reshape the culinary landscape - "Well, I'm the customer and I say a medium-rare steak is fully brown throughout with burnt, crispy edges. That's the way my mother always did it and she called it medium-rare".

By extension - the customer is "not right" where -

  • They conduct themselves rudely - aggressively and personally attacking or threatening a service provider or make other customers uncomfortable. The service provider in these circumstances is perfectly entitled to respectfully request a break, or that the conversation be conducted more civilly; or
  • They willfully ignore or fail to take notice of reasonable terms and requirements, that have been clearly communicated and/or are readily available. For example, our 9am check in guest is not "right" to say - "It's 9am and you're saying I will have to wait up to 5 hours to get into a room at your hotel? That is absolutely abysmal service, and this is my worst hotel experience ever. You wait until I get onto TripAdvisor"; or
  • Their subjective expectations do not reflect those of the reasonable, informed & articulate customer. What if a hotel guest orders room service and is given an indication that the meal will be delivered in "about 20 minutes"? The meal is then delivered in 24 minutes and the customer rings downstairs, angrily refusing to pay, saying there is no way he is rewarding "pathetic service". Should this guest be given a free meal?

So, in a way, history itself is a form of Chinese whispers. While Monsieurs Field and Ritz ethically endorsed and, indeed, required of their teams to treat customers with respect, I tend to think they would be horrified to learn that their mantra has been literally invoked by customers, and worse still, modern customer service gurus, to advocate sacrificing reasonableness, mutuality and profitability.

A parting thought - as is all too often the case, the problem is made worse by the senior management of service organisations who, on hearing of an escalated complaint (even a totally unreasonable or unsubstantiated one) simply direct staff to - "Make this thing go away". What do the child psychologists say about tantrumming 2-year olds?  Behaviour will always continue if it's rewarded. 

Author description - Tony Shepherd is an Australian lawyer, communication & negotiation specialist who works globally advising & training teams to profitably manage commercial relationships. His contact no is 61 412 004 011 or email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


First published in LinkedIn on 19th January 2017 -