Article | 9 min read

5 reasons why the customer is always right

“The customer is always right” is often a misunderstood phrase, but it's more relevant than ever as customer experience (CX) becomes a key competitive differentiator.

By Kathy Dalpes, VP, Customer Advocacy

Last updated January 22, 2024

Nowadays, customer support agents are recognised as important individuals who help us navigate cancelled flights, delayed shipments and other emotionally fraught situations.

Our research suggests that customer experience (CX) has become a key competitive differentiator for brands and a leading indicator of business growth. As a result, terms like “customer centricity”, “customer obsession” and “customer intimacy” have become increasingly common throughout organisations, from sales and support teams all the way up to the C-suite.

Read more to explore the origin of "the customer is always right", five reasons why it’s true, how to lead with a customer-centric mindset, and what to do if the customer isn’t right.

Origin of "the customer is always right"

"The customer is always right" is a popular phrase attributed to several turn-of-the-century American retail pioneers. Swiss hotelier César Ritz, perhaps most famous for the Ritz Hotel in Paris and the Carlton in London, used the slogan "Le client n’a jamais tort" (or, “the customer is never wrong”) as early as the 1890s.

The slogan is not about doing whatever the customer asks but rather going the extra mile to understand their underlying points of friction.

César Ritz quote

For example, a customer reaches out and says their chatbot broke. After a quick glance at their account, it’s clear that there’s a problem with the implementation.

One approach is to tell the customer they’re wrong—the product is working fine, and they didn’t set it up properly. Or, your company can take a step back and analyse what could be communicated or done better internally. Maybe set-up documentation can be clarified. Perhaps it might be time to improve onboarding emails or in-product messaging.

Assuming the customer is always right is about assuming responsibility for your business’s customer experience.

As Forbes points out, this idea was revolutionary at a time when consumer protections were scant and “caveat emptor” (or, “buyer beware”) was the prevailing philosophy.

Is it true that the customer is always right?

Maybe. While the sentiment is still as relevant as ever, the phrase “the customer is always right” doesn’t necessarily take into consideration that, today, customer service leaders often have more than one customer to serve.

First, there’s the customer we all think of: The person who purchases and uses our products and services. Now more than ever, everything we do as business leaders—from virtual events to product updates to Black Friday campaigns—has to serve a real customer need.

The next customer is the businesses we represent. At Zendesk, for example, our Advocacy team uses the Zendesk Suite to serve and engage with our customers. We believe that every interaction is an opportunity to solve our customers’ problems, giving them such an amazing experience that they want to use the same tools to serve their own customers.

5 reasons why the customer is always right

While critics of this customer service philosophy contend that it risks enabling rude or entitled customers, the phrase isn't supposed to be taken so literally. The point isn’t that customers should always get their way, no matter how outrageous their demands are. On the contrary, the phrase is intended to prompt businesses to stop and truly listen to their customers.

Here are a few reasons why the phrase is still relevant today, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2023.

  1. Meeting customers’ standards gives you an edge over the competition

    Customers have high standards and are willing to take their business elsewhere if you don't meet their expectations. Over 60% of customers say they would switch to a company’s competitor after just one bad customer service experience. Make it more than one bad experience and that number snowballs to 76%.

  2. Happy customers lead to better retention metrics

    CX Trend metric

    Whether you’re a well-established business or are just starting to scale and grow, wowing customers and personalising their customer service can boost retention and increase sales among your existing customer base.

    In fact, 77% of business leaders recognise that deeper personalisation leads to increased customer retention, and 66% believe it lowers acquisition costs.

  3. Satisfying your existing customer base can help you attract new customers, too

    For companies that succeed at meeting the needs of their customers, the opportunities for growth are immense. So much so that 80% of business leaders plan to increase their customer service budgets over the next year.

    Customer service is also a top consideration for shoppers when choosing companies to buy from, with many buyers shopping with a service-first mindset. Seventy per cent of customers say that seamless conversational experiences led to them purchasing more from a company, while 64% will spend more if their issues are resolved on a channel they’re already using.

  4. There is a direct link between happy customers and business performance

    CX Trend metric

    With consumers having more choices than ever before, the way a company treats its customers is now a key differentiator in the eyes of customers and companies alike.

    In fact, 60% of customers have purchased something from one brand over another based on the service they expect to receive.

  5. Loyal customers are less likely to churn

    When businesses invest in their customers and make them feel like a priority, they can build customer relationships that will last through difficult times. Sixty per cent of customers who often interact with support say that a bad interaction with a business can ruin their day, so it’s crucial for your team to invest in the customer experience.

CX Trends 2023

Learn more about the five trends shaping customer experience today and how they impact your business.

How to lead with a customer-first mindset

Ensuring your customers receive excellent customer service and an enjoyable experience with your company should be at the top of the to-do list. Explore how to lead with a customer-first mindset in more detail below.

1. Create an effortless customer experience

It’s important to meet customers where they are—it makes things easier for your customers and improves overall customer care. For example, customers expect to be able to reach you on the channels that are most convenient for them. This still includes phone and email, but it also means connecting with customers on messaging apps they already use to connect with friends and family, as well as live chat and messaging on your websites and social channels.

It’s also important to ensure your team connects conversations so customers don’t have to repeat themselves. This can easily be achieved with the right customer relationship management (CRM) software. Your customer service team should also offer a self-service section, like a resource hub, so your customers can search for answers and solutions on their own time.

2. Be data-driven

As businesses adopt new channels for customer engagement, it’s important to maintain a unified view of the customer. In an age where customer loyalty is more important than ever, businesses cannot sacrifice personalisation for scale. This, of course, is where data comes in.

CX Trend metric

Being data-driven means knowing who your customer is and being able to use data to go wherever they go. In other words, using data can help you become more agile and adjust to customer needs. Seventy per cent of customers say that they expect anyone they interact with to have full context to avoid repeating themselves, and 62% think that customer experiences should flow naturally between physical and digital spaces.

Leaders need visibility into customer data across channels to serve individual customers with relevant information and quickly address emerging trends and challenges across the entire customer base—and the business as a whole.

3. Set teams up for success

Ensure you set your teams up for success—putting your customers first isn’t possible without putting your agents first. For example, when businesses are available on customers’ preferred channels and deliver a seamless experience, true customer experience personalisation becomes possible.

It’s also about being personal. A good conversation flows seamlessly across channels and devices, whether with friends, family, colleagues or businesses. With the right tools, your employees (remember they’re customers, too) can deliver conversational experiences across all customer touchpoints.

Because when both sides “know” each other, the experience is more engaging, natural and, ultimately, successful.

How to stay customer-centric when the customer isn't right

Let’s face it, sometimes the customer is not always right. If this is the case, it’s important to note that there’s some leeway with the “customer is always right” philosophy, but only if the situation is addressed thoughtfully and with a customer-centric mindset. Here are a few tips on how to stay customer-centric even when the customer may just not be right.

  • Research the problem further

    Many times, the customer believes they have all the information needed to make an assumption or decision. If the customer is wrong or doesn’t actually have all the necessary information, cover your bases and research the problem further before proposing a solution.

    Researching the issue yourself offers the customer additional findings and reassurance—remember, you’re the expert. Rely on facts, not feelings.

  • Stay calm

    When dealing with an angry customer or a customer in the wrong, remain calm. It’s not about “winning” an argument but making the customer feel heard and resolving the dispute as effectively as possible. Avoid emotional reactions the best you can.

    If you’re in a tense conversation, it can be helpful to take a step back and review the tone of your message or email. This can help you avoid sending something through to the customer that could further escalate the problem.

  • Make recommendations

    Instead of telling a customer they’re wrong, provide them with helpful recommendations. Help them understand where to shift their thinking that honours their preferences while also solving the issue at hand. Shifting the conversation by offering helpful alternatives not only proves your value as a customer experience agent but also highlights your expertise in your field—it’s a win-win.

  • Use it as a way to improve

    Take these customer issues as an opportunity to improve your CX tactics. Unhappy customers, even those in the wrong, can be a resource for giving honest feedback and information about your business. Utilising this can help your business succeed and stand out from the competition.

Doing right by the customer

More than a century has passed since “the customer is always right” became a rallying cry for customer empathy and love. While the world has changed since then, and technology along with it, our goal as customer experience leaders remains the same: to do right by the customer. How your agents respond to customers may be the thing that sets your business apart from competitors.

It’s easier than ever for customers to share their experiences publicly, and how you handle customers will determine what they say about you. To improve your team’s customer service skills, implement customer service software from Zendesk into your business’s organisation.

CX Trends 2023

Learn more about the five trends shaping customer experience today and how they impact your business.

CX Trends 2023

Learn more about the five trends shaping customer experience today and how they impact your business.

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