Marshall Field, who created the once-popular department store chain that bore his name, is credited with popularizing the slogan “The customer is always right” starting in the nineteenth century. Scholars debate whether Field actually coined the phrase, but he is recognized for implementing and promoting it in his stores.
Variations of the phrase have been embraced by businesses around the world. According to Forbes, German companies say, “The customer is king” and in Japan, “The customer is a god.” In Spain and Italy, the phrase translates to “The customer always has a reason.” Cesar Ritz, who launched a series of hotels, riffed on the phrase to come up with the “no questions asked” policy for replacing food or wine if a diner at one of his hotel restaurants complained.
The problem with this widespread motto, as anyone who’s worked in customer service knows well, is that it’s flat-out wrong. Customers are oftentimes wrong. And obnoxious. And rude. And don’t deserve to have someone cater to them.
Another popular saying is that everyone should work in customer service at some point in their lives because it allows them to experience what people are like as consumers—interactions aren’t always pretty. The theory is that the job will encourage people to be nicer and more respectful to those who serve the public. There’s probably some truth to that, although if someone has an unpleasant personality, it’s hard to believe any job is going to change that, especially one that requires dealing with people.
I’ve worked in customer service, as has my wife and both kids. We exchange stories around the dinner table on occasion. Sometimes they’re unintentionally funny. For example, last summer, my younger son had just finished track and because all of the races are in meters, he started seeing distances that way. When he worked at Canterbury Park and someone asked where something was, he told them, “About 100 meters ahead and then turn right.” The person said irritably, “What the [expletive] is a meter?”
Other experiences are incredibly sad. Last summer, when my older son was working in a Target store, he saw a boy of about 12 standing alone and crying. When my son asked him what was wrong, the kid said he and his dad regularly came to the store together. His dad had just died, so the son came by himself and was crying because he missed his father.
While companies are trying as hard as ever to accommodate consumers and take a “customer is always right” approach in this age of social media to avoid negative online reviews, the truth is that some customers are bad for business. Toxic and chronically unhappy customers negatively affect employee morale, eat up a lot of time and resources with complaints and returns, and end up costing companies money. Trying to make them happy is a losing proposition.
With some companies now requiring customers to wear a facemask to enter a store, which some people associate with politics or personal freedoms, customer behavior has reached a new low. I’ve heard and read stories of employees being punched, kicked, beaten up, and even shot for asking people entering a store to follow company policy and strap on a mask.
If consumers disagree with mask requirements, they’re free to shop elsewhere. It’s a pretty simple concept—if you don’t like company policy, go somewhere else. Attacking employees who are probably entry level and earn close to minimal wage for doing their jobs, as if they’re the ones deciding company policies, is sickening. Regardless of what anyone thinks about wearing a mask, it’s never okay to berate, let alone assault, an employee.
I understand the passion behind ideologies, whether the issue is politics, facemasks, or something else, but it’s not an excuse to be disrespectful. My hope is that with businesses reopening in Shakopee, we can all practice being a little kinder and patient with each other. And if that’s too difficult, scale back to a basic premise of just not being a jerk. It’s a simple way to support employees, businesses, and our community, and maybe benefit from some good karma.