The Customer Is Always Right…

I feel like today is as good a day as any to stagger up onto my soapbox and talk about some of the trends I’ve noticed when out in public. The way we do business and how consumers behave have long been influenced by everyone’s needs and expectations. These days, the internet has become the top choice for the newer generation, where online shopping, communication and even ordering food has become the new “normal.” This has become even truer in the past six to eight months since the onset of COVID-19.

But there’s been a strange shift in the balance between competent employees and consumers who understand that they’re at any given location to exchange money in return for a product or service and not to be catered to like royalty. Although most “normal” people simply go in, get what they need, pay and get out, there’s a percentage of the population that just isn’t happy until they’ve complained about something, gotten someone fired or received free products or services (Looking at you, Karen!). This is where one of the biggest running jokes of the retail world comes in: The customer is always right…

The expression “The Customer Is Always Right,” comes from all the way back in the early 1900’s and is thought to have first been used by a British department store owner named Harry Gordon Selfridge. You can Google/Wikipedia this guy for his background, as he isn’t necessarily the focus of today’s post, despite the title. But the expression was originally intended to convince staff to provide top-notch service to their customers AND provide patrons with the belief that they’d receive nothing but that good service.

Oh, how times have changed! Over the past century, this expression has become less about the business and more of a weapon that consumers use to get more than what they pay for. I’m not saying that the customer is always wrong, per se. I’m simply saying that it’s irresponsible and naive to think that the customer is always right, because they very rarely are.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule (I SAID NO PICKLES ON MY BURGER KYLE!!! SERIOUSLY, HOW HARD IS IT NOT TO PUT PICKLES ON MY BURGER…) Some facets of industry tend to employ people who fall under the influence of becoming automatons, who are not stimulated or challenged by their work and who feel that being paid for their efforts is not enough. A lot of the time, this leads to sloppy work, laziness and will actually cause the problems that lead to the misnomer that the customer is always right.

It wouldn’t be one of my rants if I didn’t tell a story, so here we go! About a decade and a half ago, I was a front store manager for a well-known pharmacy chain in Canada. Part of my duties included the ordering of stock for our shelves with the products that were required and to reduce shrinkage. Like most businesses, we had a return policy that was limited in the sense that unless it was our own store brand, we only accepted returns if it could be proven that the item was purchased at our location (receipt) and that the fault lied with us (expired items, etc).

I feel that I need to explain that retail locations in Canada are under absolutely NO obligation to issue refunds or accept returns. Once money has been exchanged in return for a product or service, you’re basically on your own. Whether or not you can return an item totally falls on the specific location’s policies and you’re basically at THEIR mercy, not the other way around. Any business can refuse service, even if that service involves a refund or a return and even if most businesses do genuinely try to keep the customer happy by complying. But back to my story…

In walks a Karen… And this was back in the day before the term “Karen” was coined for the running joke the internet has made of it. Just to keep from constantly picking on people named Karen, I’ll simply refer to this person as “the customer.” Anyway, Karen… I mean the customer came into my retail location with the intention of making a return. A usual and typical part of every cashier’s daily duties, this normally wouldn’t have been a big issue.

The customer waited her turn in line and when she finally reached the cashier, explained that she had purchase a package of name-brand batteries and wanted to return them. Although I wasn’t there for this part, I was told that even the customer’s explanation was abrasive. The cashier did her job well and inquired as to what the problem was. Were we past the expiration date on the package? No. Was the package open before you got it home? No (which wouldn’t have made sense anyway, since we weren’t in the habit of selling open products).

The cashier asked the customer what the company had said when she called their customer service line marked on the packaging, and that’s where shit slipped off the rails! The customer explained that it isn’t her job to make calls and try and get her product replaced and she wanted her money refunded. My cashier explained that our store’s return policy didn’t allow her to accept a return for an item that was sold in good faith in a sealed package and that the responsibility for replacement now fell to the battery’s company and/or manufacturer. This led to one of the most self-entitled demands in retail history: “I want to speak to your manager!”

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a stoic. But I do have a significantly higher ability than most to maintain a control over my reactions; a result of a lifetime of training and control. But despite this fact, I don’t suffer fools easily and I tend not to take crap from self-entitled people, whether it comes on the job or not. So when I got to the front and was instantly confronted with an angry customer who is ranting about how my cashier provides terrible customer service and should be fired, I was already working towards trying to find my inner Zen.

Once the customer explained what had happened, I calmly explained our store’s return policy (which my cashier had already done) and how we wouldn’t be able to refund her money. The only thing such a customer hates more than not getting what they want, is having the manager they requested tell them the EXACT same thing that the employee did. It’s like their kryptonite. She got flustered and red-faced and started screaming at me in front of the line of customers, all of whom she was holding up because of her bullshit.

At this point, I felt that it was no longer a worthy battle and simply a matter of removing her from the store. Since one needs to know and accept WHEN to pick their battles, I didn’t feel that a pack of batteries priced at a few dollars was worth upsetting and disrupting the flow of waiting customers who WERE actually just there to conduct normal purchases. I go the customer hustled out the door, eventually on the threat of contacting police. I joined her outside, where I had a frank conversation with her.

Folks, I’m not a total asshole! (Most of the time) If this customer had calmly asked for the manager and had maturely explained her situation as opposed to kicking and screaming like a petulant child with a loaded diaper, I likely would have done something for her. Anything. Replaced the package. Provided store credit on a gift card. Something. There was a god chance that even though I wasn’t supposed to, my vendor would have reimbursed me for the faulty batteries and I could have helped this lady out.

But once she turned into Bitch-zilla, all bets were off. And the reality is that this type of behaviour from consumers is becoming more and more prominent. It’s almost as though consumers fail to understand that they’re there for the exchange of money for a product and nothing else. Do we want your business? Oh yes. Do we want your repeat business in order to maintain our profits? Most definitely. Let’s not kid ourselves, businesses are there to make money. But that doesn’t mean that businesses should allow their staff to be abused by the likes of people like that.

“The customer is always right” has become harmful to modern-day businesses, because employees, and most managers if they’re worth their salt are having none of it. You can go on Google and YouTube and find all sorts of videos of employees reaching their breaking point and basically sending rude and entitled customers straight to hell on the next thing burning. But there are a lot of reasons WHY this slogan is not only false, but has become harmful to businesses everywhere.

I found a pretty good article on entitled, “Top 5 Reasons Why ‘The Customer Is Always Right’ Is Wrong.” It’s a pretty good article, and covers certain aspects including but not limited to the fact that working on the basis of the customer always being right makes the employees feel less valued and unhappy, which results in worse customer service. It also provides an unfair advantage to rude customers who just wanna watch the world burn.

It’s important to be decent and reasonable when dealing with the businesses you frequent. No one owes you anything, and even though most businesses will do what they can to keep your business, I think we’re all mature enough to understand that most overall companies (especially franchise chains) won’t miss the small amount of money your shopping provides. Especially if it means the comfort and protection of their staff. For toxic customers who are genuinely bad for a business, there’s the door. Be sure to let it smack your ass on the way out, the way your momma should have!

In closing, one last little detail about my story that just adds the icing on the cake… The package of batteries the customer purchased were on special and she demanded having them refunded at the original, full retail price. So not only did she expect a refund, she expected more money back than she had paid! Snowflakes… I think we owe it to ourselves to be better to each other than that. We all have times when we get frustrated because of something retail-related. Maybe you bought the wrong size. Maybe it wasn’t the product you expected. Shit happens. You simply need to understand that it’s not the employees fault, and businesses won’t roll out a red carpet and massage your feet as a result. There’s enough suffering in the world without intentionally adding to it. Shop safely, my friends! ☯

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I am a practitioner of the martial arts and student of the Buddhist faith. I have been a Type 1 Diabetic since I was 4 years old and have been fighting the uphill battle it includes ever since. I enjoy fitness and health and looking for new ways to improve both, as well as examining the many questions of life. Although I have no formal medical training, I have amassed a wealth of knowledge regarding health, Diabetes, martial arts as well as Buddhism and philosophy. My goal is to share this information with the world, and perhaps provide some sarcastic humour along the way. Welcome!

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