The Customer is Still Always Right: Expert Op-Ed

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By Solange Strom & Frédéric Dimanche

It is believed that Harry Gordon Selfridge popularized the phrase “the customer is always right” in the early 1900s and the motto was thereafter endorsed by countless retailers. While the statement was ambiguous (after all, the customer is not always right), it created a deeply entrenched habit in North American retailers. One that was taken to extremes by the likes of Nordstrom known for its famously liberal return policies to keep their clients happy. 

Yet, today, this affirmation is put to the test. Retailers and service providers are now asking clients to behave. From signage in stores telling clients that rude or aggressive behavior will not be tolerated to businesses simply shutting their doors and only accepting customers by appointment, it may look like clients have lost the upper hand. Blaming their anxiety and frustration over pandemic related issues, they are being told to shoulder the responsibility for situations that get out of hand. 

But it’s a little too easy to impute the issues on the clients. Doing so removes any service accountability on the part of the retailer; it ignores the fact that many of the frustrations experienced by clients are indeed the retailer’s responsibility, whether it is staffing, service quality or supply chain issues. Finally, it neglects to acknowledge the obvious fact: customers expect retailers to meet their needs, not the other way around. 

Excellence in customer service is the retailer’s responsibility 

We all agree that it is unacceptable for a client to demonstrate rude and aggressive behavior or to use abusive language towards staff. That’s a given. We have all encountered demanding and entitled clients who make unreasonable requests and then become angry when those requests are not met. 

However, a recent study challenges the widely held assumption that clients are always the ones triggering bad behavior. On the contrary, it suggests that when tension escalates between a client and a staff member, it is often due to the employee’s attitude and not the reverse. 

One well-known retailer once said that the best way to manage a conflictual situation with a client was to “kill him/her” with kindness. That may seem evident but it’s obviously not a mainstream attitude. Indeed, many articles such as this one have been published recently about clients conducting themselves poorly towards staff and retailers and other service-oriented companies pushing back with signage asking clients to be respectful to their “valued staff.”

Staffing, service quality, and supply chain issues are the retailer’s responsibility 

We are by now well aware that the pandemic has exacerbated staffing, service quality, and supply chain issues. 

Staffing has always been a problem for retailers and the multiple store closures has compounded it, driving countless employees to leave the industry entirely. Thus, many retailers have entire new teams. One retailer admitted in confidence that 75% of their managers have been less than a year in their role and were, for the most part, promoted from more junior positions. With little to no management training, the consequence is often a scenario akin to the blind leading the blind. 

Service Quality. For about 20 years, the quality of service which results in customer satisfaction has been given increased attention. Retailers have worked towards enhancing customer satisfaction as the pivotal point to drive sales (Farooq & Salam, 2018). 

Several studies in the past decade have noted that service quality is the main driving force behind increased revenue (Elivra & Shpetim, 2016). With better service quality, the reputation of the brand improves, and customers are more loyal. 

However, the pandemic seems to have triggered an erosion of service quality in many places, mostly as a result of a well-documented labour gap, which, itself, results in a skills gap. We have all heard stories of poor or downright atrocious customer service. While most customers understand the issues currently faced by retailers such as lack of personnel and inventory problems, they do not appreciate retailers not taking responsibility for them and not trying to find solutions such as implementing better training programs. Instead, they are often being talked to rudely or dismissively, leading to further dissatisfaction. Ultimately, customers just want to be treated with empathy and be listened to. When their concerns are ignored or disregarded, they rightfully become angry. 

Supply chain issues resulting from the pandemic are global and well documented. While some aspects of these problems are out of the retailers’ control, managing them as far as the clients are concerned is entirely their responsibility. Clients are aware of these issues. They just don’t appreciate a retailer who makes excuses instead of trying to empathize and find solutions. Indeed, retailers already know what products are out of stock, and they can anticipate the clients’ reactions and act accordingly. When staff acknowledge clients’ irritation and works with them to solve the problem, most clients leave on a positive note instead of being angry and frustrated. 

When that is not done and when staff ignore it, the client is legitimately upset. Retailers need to come up with other options to not only keep the client satisfied but also to keep their businesses alive. It’s not by berating clients that this will happen. A sign warning customers about their “anticipated behavior” when they enter a store is a major deterrent and could drive them away, feeling unwelcome. After all, retailers need clients desperately and cannot afford, especially nowadays, to lose a single one. 

Retailers must meet the clients’ needs, not the other way around 

There was a time where the people who shopped in stores were the valued ones. Despite the growth of online shopping, retailers’ goal should always be to deliver the best client experience possible, regardless of their customers’ attitudes. The customer may not always be right, but in the aftermath of the pandemic, we need, more than ever, to address customer concerns, foster service quality and heighten the customer experience. That’s our job. 

Solange Strom
Solange Strom

Solange Strom, visionary and entrepreneurial retail executive with a track record of driving growth through employee-centric strategies. 25 years helming global brands such as Boiron, L’Occitane en Provence and Repetto Paris. Founder of the Radical Retail Method, a training program aimed at supporting retail organizations in their quest for excellence. To contact Solange visit

Photo: Frederic Dimanche

Frederic Dimanche is a Professor and Director at the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University. He has thirty years of professional and academic experience in service marketing and consumer behaviour, particularly in hospitality and tourism. His academic experience includes in the USA, France, and Canada.



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