In my previous post I discussed the zeal with which many managers adhere to Harry Gordon Selfridge’s creaky mantra that “the customer is always right”. Now let’s turn to the equally suspect conviction that daring to acknowledge the customer might actually be wrong inevitably courts disaster.

There are numerous reasons why the abandonment of these mutually dependent beliefs is long overdue. The most compelling, as I touched on earlier, is that they combine to condemn many workers to exist at the permanent mercy of the people they serve. By clinging to Selfridge’s outmoded axiom – and, in tandem, by living in dread of upsetting even the most unruly of customers – businesses legitimise the abuse of their employees.

Consider the following quote, which comes from a member of restaurant staff interviewed for a 2006 study: “We have a three-drinks maximum, and he wanted a fourth drink. I told him I had to get a manager because I’m not allowed to serve four drinks to one customer. He then went off on me. He told me the customer is always right and if I wanted a tip at all I should be kissing his ass, not telling him off.”

Would it really constitute some kind of retail calamity to lose a customer such as this? And, perhaps more pertinently, what message would it send to the workforce if management sided with him?

The myth of consumer sovereignty

British economist William Harold Hutt coined the term “consumer sovereignty” in the mid-1930s. It encapsulates the idea that customers influence firms’ production decisions and that businesses invariably respond to their clients’ preferences.

The more cynical among us might well be tempted to dismiss such a concept as a myth. For a start, only an idealist equipped with the most rose-tinted of spectacles would sincerely argue that no company in history has ever sold a product that the wider public didn’t really want or even need.

Whether organisations should propound such a fanciful and essentially unrealisable notion at every turn, though, is a debate for another time. What concerns us here is what happens when consumers themselves feel the myth has been shattered.

Customer abuse occurs when enchantment turns to disillusionment; when the sovereignty that organisations slavishly promote abruptly breaks down; when the mask, regardless of where or with whom the fault might lie, suddenly slips. Massaged into assuming the trappings of authority, customers are pricked by powerlessness as the myth dissolves. This is the ugly transformation encapsulated in the quote above.

That didn’t hurt, did it?

If a customer’s reaction to the perceived loss of sovereignty goes beyond reasonable behaviour, as with the example of our friend in dire need of a fourth drink, should an organisation bend over backwards to make amends? Such a one-dimensional retort revolves around the simplistic notion that a lost customer equals lost business; but what else might be lost if blame is automatically and unthinkingly apportioned to employees?

When managers unfailingly side with customers instead of staff, no matter what the excesses or transgressions of the former, they send out a damaging message that workers aren’t valued. The result is a network of respect-free non-relationships. Conditioned to function in an environment in which civility is merely optional, workers themselves become less caring. Managers remain disconnected from the reality of life on the front line. And customer abuse continues to flourish.

We could do worse than take a leaf out of the much-thumbed book of former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, whose handling of one serial complainer has entered business legend. The lady in question flew with Southwest on a regular basis yet somehow found something to gripe about each and every time.

Eventually, after umpteen run-ins, the long-suffering members of Southwest’s customer relations department alerted Kelleher to the saga. Within a minute he had written a suitably unambiguous farewell letter to his company’s most consistently dissatisfied customer:

Dear Mrs Crabapple,

We will miss you.



Let the haters hate

As Kelleher recognised, there are occasions when loyalty to staff is far more important – not to mention far more valuable – than loyalty to customers. Given a choice between backing the people who make your organisation and backing the people who would like to break your organisation, it’s pretty ludicrous to align yourself with a tiny band of malcontents. Kelleher accepted that the customer can be wrong; he sent the customer packing, and it really didn’t hurt.

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. Sometimes employees do give bad service. Sometimes workers are less than perfect. Yet nobody should be treated like a serf – and that’s the attitude we invite when we absolutely insist the customer is always right.

Ultimately, two or three unhappy souls who honestly believe it’s the duty of frontline staff to “kiss ass” are extremely unlikely to be missed in the long term. They’ll find someone else to be rude to soon enough. A workforce festering with antipathy and resentment, on the other hand, is a cause for genuine and thoroughly justified concern.

Marek Korczynski is a Professor of the Sociology of Work at Nottingham University Business School.

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