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What if the customer is not always right? – Strategies for Businesses in Dealing with Troublesome Customers


We have all heard the phrase, “the customer is always right”, it has been an expression used since the early 20th century in businesses across America. The concept behind the phrase was to give customers the feeling that their needs and desires come first and foremost. But is this the right way to do business? What if the client is, in fact, wrong?

I have worked as a waitress in the food industry, and I can say from experience that there are many situations when the customer is not right. The client’s satisfaction is important, especially for a waitress working for tips. These incidents can be difficult especially if the customer requests to speak to a manager. But what should employers do in these situations? Do they back their employees? Or do they side with their clients?

According to a blog article on Huff Post Business, Gordan Bethune the former CEO of Continental Airlines believes having your employee’s back is more important than the customers. Bethune explains, “You can’t treat your employees like serfs. You have to value them…If they think that you won’t support them when a customer is out of line, even the smallest problem can cause resentment”. Resentment in the workplace is problematic for business. Employees, who do not trust their employers, will not work hard for them.

When conflicts arise between customers and employees, employers may find it difficult to navigate because while standing behind their employee is important, customer satisfaction is necessary for a business to grow. There are several general tools that the employee and employer can use when working with troublesome customers to move from conflict to resolution.

Lee Jay Berman founder of the American Institute of Mediation (AIM) suggests that the essential first step to resolving any conflict is to keep your cool. The moment people get angry they are no longer listening or hearing what is being said to them. If the customer is dissatisfied with the product or service they may get angry, it is important not to react in the same fashion, or the capacity to move forward will be lost.

The second step towards resolution suggested by Mind Tools is to listen actively to what the other person is saying. To actively listen means that one person is listening to what the other is saying, rather than thinking about what they will say next. When dealing with dissatisfied customers, it is important that they feel that their grievance is being heard. If they do not feel this way, they may become angrier.

The next step to solve the issue, apologize. Even if the customer is in the wrong, apologize for the inconvenience, the mistake, etc. Just acknowledging their grievance with an apology can assist in cooling tensions.The final step towards resolution is figuring out a solution. The employer must find a solution that satisfies the customer, but also preserves their establishment’s integrity.

While these are general tools that can be used to resolve a conflict between an employer/employee and a client, not every situation warrants a resolution. The phrase “the customer is always right”, implies to the customer that even if they are wrong, they are still right, which is not the case in every situation. Employers need to recognize that the quality of the customer is better than the quantity. As Alexander Kjerulf explains in the Huff Blog Business, “Most businesses think that “the more customers the better.” But some customers are just bad for business.” It is important that the employer can recognize the difference between the customer worth saving, and the customer worth letting go.

While the customers are what make the business prosperous, some customers can cause more problems. In situations where the customer is not right, employers must support their employees in order for them to feel valued. It is essential that employees know how to handle conflicts with dissatisfied customers efficiently, so that they can resolve and move forward. But, it is also essential for employers to know when a customer is more harm than good for their business.


Abigail Clark

Graduate Student, University of Baltimore –

Negotiation and Conflict Management Program



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