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What Happened to the Customer Is Always Right?

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

Brand management in the age of social media

Ask your friend to recount an exceptionally positive experience with a company.  Then ask your friend to recount a negative experience with a company.  It is likely that your friend would be much quicker at remembering the negative experience and have many more examples to share than positive experiences (Roberts, Dutton, Spreitzer, Heaphy, & Quinn, 2005).  It seems that great customer service is becoming the exception rather than the norm.  This is unfortunate because customer service is at the foundation of brand management and brand management should be vigorously protected by managers especially in today’s social media age.  No longer are bad customer service experiences limited to one’s inner circle, neighborhood, or work places.  Social media has made it possible for any customer to share his or her experiences with companies to a much larger audience with the possibility of their experiences going viral and becoming a major public relations disaster for companies at worst and at the very least have a negative effect on the company’s bottom line through lost future sales.  Readers might remember Delta Airlines faux pas over charging U.S. soldiers over $2,000 for baggage fees.  The soldiers’ video complaining about the fees led to a PR disaster and changes to baggage fees for military personnel at the other major airlines as well (the other airlines learned from Delta’s mistake).  A tweet by Sir Patrick Stewart blasting Time Warner for having to wait over 36 hours for his cable installer to arrive flooded Twitter with similar complaints from other dissatisfied customers.  More and more consumers are now becoming aware of the customer service experience of others (Interested readers can check out more customer service blunders and a few customer service exemplars here).

The irony is that the negative customer service experience could have begun as a relatively minor offense on the part of a company, but it can be quickly exacerbated if management does not manage the offense appropriately.   There is not a business or industry that does not depend at least to some extent on its relationship with its customers to survive. The recognition that customers and customer service are instrumental to business success goes back more than a century as evidenced by the popular adage “The customer is always right,” coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London (Martin, 2012).  While each specific situation needs to be investigated to determine whether the customer is actually right, managers would do well to begin with this premise and train their employees to do so as well.   Below are some tips that managers and customers can follow to navigate through these situations to prevent a mole hill from becoming a mountain. 

Tip 1: The Customer is Always Right:  As I mentioned earlier, managers and employees should begin with this premise because it reaffirms a culture of exceptional customer service—which should be the aim of just about any company.  This is certainly a balancing act for managers because employees want to feel like their management supports them while customers also want to feel like they are valued.  The key is that if exceptional customer service is the culture of the organization, employees should not take it personally when deference is given to customers because they recognize that the company is trying to come to an integrative solution where the needs of both parties are met and appropriate care and respect are given to all parties involved rather than a distributive solution where one side wins and the other side loses.

Tip 2:  Mitigate any Further Damage and Investigate Promptly:  If a water pipe is leaking, then it is most urgent to stop the leak to mitigate any further damage in a home.  Along the same vein, when a customer has a negative customer service complaint, then managers should work quickly to provide appropriate solutions to mitigate any further damage that may occur due to the injustice.  Customers and employees/companies develop psychological contracts regarding the service and relationships  that they expect from one another (Morrison & Robinson, 1997; Robinson & Rousseau, 1994).  Of course this expectation varies depending on the brand and industry where high-end brands are expected to deliver far superior customer service to their customers than low-end brands, thus justifying the high-end brands’ price premiums.  Although great customer service should be a norm at any company, one would expect a higher quality of service at Mercedes Benz (more on this later) than one would get at Hyundai.  Equity theory (Adams, 1965) informs us that people pay close attention to inequities in social relations and when an inequity occurs one would search for a solution to restore equity.  Bad customer service is an inequity and psychological contract breach to a customer so after mitigating any further damage, managers need to investigate promptly why, how, when, where, and who experienced and was the cause of the bad customer service. 

Tip 3:  Apologize, Explain, and Attempt to Reconcile to Show Good Faith:  Managers apologizing for the mishap should be a no-brainer, but I am surprised to hear how often customers are not even offered an apology for bad service.  An apology can actually go a long way in keeping the mole hill from turning into a mountain, however, many times an apology alone is not sufficient to provide reconciliation and show good faith.  After an investigation is done and answers are available, managers should relay the findings of the investigation to the customer as soon as possible and take full responsibility.  If the offense was truly on the company, then the manager should offer an appropriate form of reconciliation to show good faith in an effort to retain the customer, offer the customer a positive experience (you don’t want a customer’s last experience with you to be negative), and provide closure to the event.  Explaining the situation to the employee who was involved is also necessary to prevent situations like this from happening in the future.  If the company was actually in the right, then the manager should still apologize for failing to meet expectations, but also provide adequate justifications for why proper policies and procedures were followed.  Managers must pay close attention to tone as the justification should not be given in a condescending, dismissive, or superior manner, but only for information purposes to provide closure to the event. 

What should customers do?

When customers receive bad customer service, they should inform a representative of the company.  This can be the employee, a manager, or the corporate office.  Informing the company of bad customer service should be welcomed by the company because it provides the company with important feedback and allows other customers to hopefully not experience what that customer experienced.  Customers should also seek more information concerning the situation in order to get a better understanding of what may have occurred and alternative explanations.  Customers can do this by asking other employees questions on policies and procedures, pitching hypothetical situations, as well as asking others within their network for information and advice.  Depending on the severity of the situation, customers can also stage confederates to gather more information and provide evidence in support of their case.  In fact, using confederates in research has been an important scientific design that has provided us with a lot of valuable information on how customers may be treated differently based on a number of various characteristics (Evett, Hakstian, Williams, & Henderson, 2013; King & Ahmad, 2010).  Customers should stand up for themselves and not be afraid to ask for an appropriate reconciliation on the part of the company to show good faith and to restore the inequity.  If such a reconciliation is refused and the company does not provide an adequate justification to support the refusal, then shame on the company and it should beware! 

Can you give a personal example? I recently experienced the disappointment of bad customer experience from the Mercedes Benz of Cherry Hill, NJ dealership.  I decided before not to purchase my vehicle from that dealership because of the unexpected poor and impersonal service I received while seeking information on a number of different models they were selling.  Instead, I purchased my vehicle from a Mercedes Benz dealership that is more than an hour from my home.  Deciding to give the dealer another chance, I went back to purchase a prepaid maintenance plan.  Needless to say, my first impression was reconfirmed and the service got worse.  I followed the advice I am giving, but MB of Cherry Hill did not.  The irony is that Mercedes Benz’s slogan is “The Best or Nothing” and although MB of Cherry Hill did not fulfill on the “Best,” they certainly fulfilled on the “Nothing.”  Therefore, I returned to the dealership where I purchased my vehicle to fulfill my service needs, which they did with the utmost respect and professionalism.  However, as I mentioned before, bad service at one company does more than just affect that company, but also affects the entire brand so I still have second thoughts about purchasing another Mercedes Benz.  As customers, we always have options and managers of companies must remember that. 

Brand management is even more important in the age of social media.  Managers need to realize that bad customer service may not just affect the specific company but can affect all companies under the same brand.  This point is most evident with franchise brands.  Many profitable and well-known companies have fallen from their apex and some have even entered bankruptcy (remember Blackberry, Circuit City, Polaroid, Blockbuster, etc.) so no company should believe it is invincible against threats.  Whether or not the customer is always right, managers would do well to follow these tips.    

*Dr. Holmes can be reached on Twitter @OHIV.


Adams, J. S. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), (Vol. 2, pp. 267–299). New York: Academic Press.

Evett, S. R., Hakstian, A. G., Williams, J. D., & Henderson, G. R. (2013). What’s Race Got to Do with It?

Responses to Consumer Discrimination. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13(1), 165–185. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2012.01297.x

King, E. B., & Ahmad, A. S. (2010). An experimental field study of interpersonal discrimination toward Muslim job applicants. Personnel Psychology, 63, 881–906.

Martin, G. (2012). The customer is always right. The Phrase Finder. Retrieved March 15, 2012, from

Morrison, E. W., & Robinson, S. L. (1997). When employees feel betrayed:  A model of how psychological contract violation develops. Academy of Management Review, 22(1), 226–256.

Roberts, L. M., Dutton, J. E., Spreitzer, G. M., Heaphy, E. D., & Quinn, R. E. (2005). Composing the reflected best-self portrait:  Building pathways for becoming extraordinary in work organizations.

Academy of Management Review, 30(4), 712–736.

Robinson, S. L., & Rousseau, D. M. (1994). Violating the psychological contract: Not the exception but the norm. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15(3), 245–259. doi:10.1002/job.4030150306

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