I grew up hearing “the customer is always right.” I totally disagree with that statement. Of course, the customer is right many, many times, but the word “always” goes a little too far, and makes the statement false for me.

When might the customer not be right? In my world, students are sometimes considered customers. Say a student comes to a professor’s office. The student missed class due to oversleeping and wants to turn in a late assignment. It was due during the class he missed. If the customer is always right, then wouldn’t the professor need to accept the late assignment? But what would the student learn if the professor accepted it late?

Another example can be found in a physician’s office or hospital when a patient (a customer!) shares a convincing tale of pain and suffering and asks for an opioid prescription. Knowing what we know about the addictive properties of opioids today, should the doctor prescribe the drug upon request? What if the doctor declines and the patient threatens to provide a negative online review? Should the doctor change her mind?



Years ago the CEO of a prominent chain of clothing stores in my community spoke to my class. One of the students asked him to react to the “customer is always right” concept.

He shared several stories about customers who had essentially been “fired” as customers because of their abuse of the chain’s return policy. It seems a person would come in on a Friday, for example, purchase a nice dress shirt or a cute top, wear it on Saturday night, and return the item on Monday. As this was more than 20 years ago, it took the employees a while to figure out the pattern between multiple stores. But they did figure it out, and told the customer that they would no longer accept the returns. When the customer squawked, a manager suggested that the store couldn’t please the customer, so perhaps he shouldn’t shop there any longer.

In today’s world of social media and computer tracking, organizations are much more likely to notice those patterns much sooner. But social media is also a tool that customers use when they are unhappy. How often do people take potshots on YELP or TripAdvisor when something doesn’t go exactly as they wanted it to? Some customers even tell an organization’s employees that they will write negative reviews if they don’t get what they want. No wonder organizations today have employees who troll social media accounts to see what people are saying.

Are there customers who have bad experiences that need to be addressed by the organization? Absolutely. But there are far too many patrons who use the goodwill of companies to get what they want, even if it’s not the right way to go about it.

So what’s a manager to do? Most of the firms I know have protocols in place to deal with unhappy customers. It may be a step-by-step process that is followed by the front-line folks. In a large majority of cases, the problem can be resolved at that level. But sometimes the problem escalates to the level of mid- or even upper-level managers. Some of us have good instincts about how to address situations that rise to those levels. I wouldn’t let a customer’s threat move me from doing the right thing. I’ve had students’ parents threaten to have attorneys get involved over situations related to their children. My response? We have attorneys as well, and they will be happy to talk with your attorney!

If you’ve assumed the customer is always right, maybe you should rethink it. Most customers probably are, but there are some you’d just soon lose as customers. You can never please them.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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