The vexed assertion that the customer is always right is widely credited to Harry Gordon Selfridge. He founded a department store in London a century or so ago and ended up with his show on ITV.

Selfridge’s mantra was intended to reassure shoppers that any complaints would be taken on board and treated seriously. Although the concept seemed noble and well-intentioned, it wasn’t long before detractors began highlighting the flaws in such a philosophy.

The first critic to land a conspicuous blow in print was Frank Farrington. In 1914 he wrote Successful Salesmanship: Is the Customer Always Right? “If we adopt the policy of admitting whatever claims the customer makes to be proper,” Farrington warned, “we shall subject ourselves to inevitable losses.”

What he was saying was that some customers aren’t very nice. Some are dishonest, some are rude and others are spectacularly unpleasant. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.

Few among us could sincerely deny this uncomfortable truth. Just as there are customers who fit Selfridge’s ideal and deserve every courtesy, so there are customers who are pains in the backside and whose conduct would severely test the tolerance of most level-headed folk.

The Service Industry Now

More than a hundred years since the two schools of thought emerged it’s pretty clear that the Selfridge ethos continues to dominate its Farrington counterpart. Moreover, it’s nowadays seen not just as an all-encompassing guarantee of good service but as a near-unshakable tenet by which those who deliver that service should live their working lives.

This has profoundly significant repercussions for the people tasked with dealing with the paying public. Customer abuse is a serious and growing phenomenon. In most instances, there’s absolutely no meaningful recourse available to those who suffer it.

One major obstacle to positive change is the prevailing belief that customer abuse is an issue that you can track to the deviant actions of individuals. In some cases the blame may well lie with “bad apples”, but we shouldn’t ignore the role that the very fabric of the service economy plays in encouraging abuse.

Three factors, in particular, contribute to a perfect storm:

1. Lack of Power

Workers are more likely to be open to customer abuse when they have little power. Whether because their skills are of negligible market value or because they don’t have a collective voice. Hopes for improvement in this regard have traditionally rested with unionisation.

2. Lack of Status

Various studies have noted that many service work positions are occupied by people with gender, ethnic and social class characteristics of low status, not least relative to those of customers. Abuse is liable to flourish when customers “look down” on employees.

3. Lack of Relationships

Repeated interactions between workers and customers can lead to familiarity and even friendship (think corner shops). One-off interactions, which are increasingly common amid escalating centralisation, afford scant scope for such mutually beneficial bonds (think call centres).

These failings are organisational, not individual, and together they support a management outlook that legitimises customer abuse. They sustain a culture in which employees are to bear the direct emotional harm and personal costs of antisocial behaviour. They perpetuate the quaint and dangerous conviction that certain workers should exist. One study respondent memorably put it, “at the mercy” of those they serve.

It seems fair to suggest that if the failings are organisational then the solutions ought to be as well. They undoubtedly can be, but many companies remain unable to look beyond the one-dimensional notion that a lost customer means lost business.

Such a view can prove toxic. As Farrington hinted all those decades ago, losses come in various forms. When managers side with customers instead of staff, they send out an unmistakable message that workers aren’t valued and should expect nothing whatsoever in the way of respect. Often the result is a downward spiral of dehumanised and internecine relationships in which employees, conditioned to exist in an environment in which civility is strictly optional, themselves become ever more insolent and uncaring.

Fighting Fire with Fire?

This is by no means to say management should grant workers free rein to handle abusive customers as they, please. Fighting fire with fire isn’t the solution. Officially sanctioned punch-ups aren’t the answer. But there has to be some degree of regulation or, at the very least, a healthy degree of wriggle room.

Ultimately, employees who act entirely reasonably in coping with utterly unreasonable customer abuse should feel justified, safe and, above all, supported in doing so. Any service ethos that denies this fundamental right is like the televised adventures of Mr Selfridge himself: antiquated, inane and firmly rooted in the realms of fiction.

Customer abuse is growing

Earlier I mentioned one of the business world’s most enduring mantras, “The customer is always right”. I argued that the notion has invariably been damaging both for companies and for the people they aim to serve. Here we look more closely at  a few of the fundamental points and begin to explain in more detail why this long-established idea, to be blunt, is utter nonsense, due to growing customer abuse.

“The customer is always right” was a well-intentioned sentiment back in the day – and by “back in the day” I mean more than a hundred years ago. It was coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge to reassure shoppers at his swish London department store that any complaints they might have would be treated with the utmost seriousness.

Within a few years, its wisdom was being questioned in print. Critics warned that a policy of responding to any claim with unswerving quiescence, irrespective of how arbitrary or outlandish or spectacularly self-serving that claim might be, could well prove unwise.

On the whole, though, despite the weight of evidence to the contrary, Selfridge’s dictum is still taken as gospel today. Even though customer abuse is a growing phenomenon, with those on the front line of the service economy increasingly subjected to fundamentally intolerable behaviour, the opinion of a man from the sepia-toned era of top hats and handlebar moustaches continues to hold sway. How can this be so?

The legitimisation of customer abuse

A major hurdle in overthrowing Selfridge’s maxim and all it has come to represent is the widespread conviction that customer abuse is a problem caused exclusively by individuals. This belief remains notably prevalent among managers, and it has unhappy implications for all concerned – chief among them those whose role, in the words of a McDonald’s employee interviewed for an early-’90s ethnography of retail work, is “to take the crap”.

It’s quite true, of course, that “bad apples” play a part. No walk of life is free from people who aren’t especially nice, and customers certainly provide no exception to the rule. There is plenty of inherently rude, disingenuous and nasty folk out there.

Yet humanity’s innate capacity for unpleasantness is only half the story. Instead of dismissing customer abuse as the unfortunate corollary of lots of disagreeable people taking turns to demonstrate their ability to cause offence, we should be looking at the bigger picture – and the bigger picture is that much of the fault lies with the very fabric of the service economy.

To put it another way: customer abuse is in large part a perfect storm of companies’ own making. It’s something that organisations and their managers routinely legitimise – however unwittingly – and which employees, by direct extension, are doomed to suffer. In short, it’s systemic.

Why customer abuse flourishes

As stated earlier a paucity of three qualities, Power, Status and Relationships, contributes to the existence and legitimisation of customer abuse. At best these attributes are lacking; at worst, they’re wholly absent.

Reassurance versus reaffirmation

The failings detailed above are organisational, not individual. Each is central to a culture that condemns frontline workers to bear the emotional costs of their customers’ aggression and affords them virtually no recourse in the face of actions that all too frequently go beyond the bounds of acceptability. Managers might well counsel “empathy”, but where’s the empathy for their staff?

This isn’t to imply that employees should be given free rein to respond as they see fit. That would be less a solution and more a prelude to unmitigated disaster. What they must be afforded, though, not least in the absence of meaningful regulation, is reassurance.

Above all, frontline workers should be confident that their own reasonable reactions to obviously unreasonable conduct will be met with a suitable degree of management sympathy. Selfridge’s credo may well have been quaint, charming and even appropriate in Edwardian times, but today it’s hopelessly archaic – and that’s why, as I’ll explain further its inflexible reaffirmation must finally come to an end.

Putting Lost Custom Into Perspective

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 client’s 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?

A customer’s reaction to the perceived loss of sovereignty can go beyond reasonable behaviour. This was evidenced in the example of our friend in dire need of a fourth drink. Therefore, 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. However 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.

Communities of Coping

At the heart of the issue is a strange and damaging irony. Management customarily preaches the need for frontline workers to show empathy. Yet empathy for staff is routinely conspicuous by its absence. Often the outcome of this inequity is a downward spiral of dehumanised relationships in which no one – managers, employees, customers – is left with even a shred of empathy for anyone else.

There’s also a second irony, which is that these essentially miserable circumstances habitually serve to bring employees closer together. After all, nothing encourages a siege mentality like a hardship. Some managers might even marvel at the team spirit that apparently emerges from adversity.

But these aren’t teams per se – not in the classic sense of a shared ethos, a common goal and a collective will to go paintballing on a company away day. Instead, they’re what we might call “communities of coping”; and communities of coping, at least deep down, are frequently communities of resistance.

The search for sympathy

Although usually informal, communities of coping constitute a crucial element of a workplace’s social relations. They embody a consolidated effort on the part of employees to deal with the stresses and strains of professional life. Sometimes they’re to be found in the midst of the labour process. Sometimes they’re to be found “off-stage”. For example in restrooms or other communal areas. Away from the prying gaze of management and, indeed, customers.

On one level these groups can function in putative harmony with managers’ desires. In providing a means for employees to survive the tensions of their daily lot, for instance, they can preserve the natural order of things by reducing staff turnover and attendant costs.

On another level, though, they can represent powerful workplace cultures that are difficult to control. This much should come as little surprise. The roots of these kinships can almost invariably be traced to some form of frustration or dissatisfaction.

It’s for this reason that managers traditionally try to steer workers towards more formal methods of coping. Approaches that are amenable to direct intervention and less liable to foment discontentment. Accordingly, a stock management reaction to an episode of customer abuse is to counsel that the employee shouldn’t necessarily share it. Whereas the stock reaction of the employee is to relate the ordeal to colleagues, knowing only too well that a sympathetic hearing inevitably awaits.

Management intransigence and employee isolation

The victims of customer abuse are advised again and again not to take it personally. Aside from its innate glibness, this suggestion conveniently overlooks the contradiction of adopting an impersonal mindset for a role in which personality might well be imperative. This and similar mechanisms may prove successful to an extent, but in the eyes of the frontline staff, they’re highly unlikely to rival the appeal and comfort that communities of coping present.

This much was neatly encapsulated in a conversation I was privy to while conducting a recent study of customer abuse’s effects. The exchange came during a training session at which a call-centre manager discussed the question of peer support with several new recruits.

One of the trainees recounted a story about discovering a colleague in tears after an abusive call. “If I’ve been told off,” she said, “I want to talk about it.” The manager claimed there could be “no pat answer” and insisted: “Somebody might need to talk to a manager, go to a team leader or whoever it is you report to… But we shouldn’t gossip about customers.”

This is the type of blinkered, unavailing philosophy that systematically leaves workers isolated both from abusive customers and from managers. They find themselves at the centre of a web of non-relationships. Cynicism and indifference were increasingly fundamental to all their interactions. In the end, they feel they have only each other. This, on balance, isn’t a healthy situation.

Prevention is better than cure

A great deal of management rhetoric surrounds the notion of “teams”. Communities of coping are teams of a sort, but they aren’t the kind of teams managers dream of when they envision a happy and productive work environment.

There are perhaps two ways of looking at this. The first is to consider how to respond to communities of coping once they have developed; the second, which offers a far more attractive solution, is to, at last, give serious thought to why they develop in the first place.

The logic is simple enough: communities of coping arise where there’s an issue that requires coping with. In other words, they occur where something is amiss. It’s a curious school of thought that refuses to recognise that addressing an initial problem is easier than allowing another to flourish and then attempting to tackle that instead. Not least when the legitimisation of customer abuse is the cause, prevention really is better than cure.

Lessons From A Different Approach

There is a fundamental point that managers need to understand. This isn’t exclusively a problem whose roots lie in the unpleasant actions of individuals. Rather, it’s an issue that all too frequently results from systemic failings in the very fabric of the service economy.

Let’s quickly remind ourselves of some of those failings. Among the most significant are the lack of power that workers have. Their low status in comparison to those they serve. Finally the widespread absence of non-superficial client-provider relationships in an era of ever-intensifying centralisation. These are organisational shortcomings. They’re central to a culture in which frontline staff routinely bear the emotional costs of customer aggression.

Also crucial is the notion of “consumer sovereignty”. This, remember, is the idea that companies unswervingly base their production decisions on customers’ preferences. Like the hoary precept that the customer is always right, it’s a principle from another age. It’s when the myth of consumer sovereignty is exploded that customer abuse usually occurs.

Can we find anywhere less in the grip of these outdated and damaging tropes? And, if so, is it possible to discern signs of how a different approach might lead to better outcomes? One arena that appears to offer encouraging evidence is the social market economy.

A Scandinavian model

Much of the scholarly research on customer abuse has its roots in classic liberal market economies. These include the US and the UK. In contrast, social market economies such as those found in Germanic and Scandinavian nations, display several significant distinctions.

One prominent difference is that employees in social market economies often enjoy recognition as legitimate stakeholders. They possess a voice and don’t find themselves relegated to the roles of subordinates or serfs. Given this perspective, they’re more likely to garner genuine support from their managers. The way they perceive and respond to the people they interact with, and the behaviour they encounter, could deviate significantly from the norms their counterparts in liberal market economies, unfortunately, know all too well.

This divergence was precisely what my research on customer abuse in Denmark revealed. I concentrated my efforts on staff working within a State Administration family unit. Following a series of budget cuts and reorganizations, these employees grappled with a massive backlog of casework, ensnaring them in a prolonged stretch of customer abuse.

They faced the wrath and even violence on occasion. As one newcomer noted, her co-workers’ counsel boiled down to: “You’ll quickly become immune to being called a s****d b***h.” No doubt, it was a trying period. However, the question arises: how did many of them manage not just to hold their ground, but also to cultivate seemingly genuine resilience?

Sovereign consumer or fellow citizen?

Simply put, the answer hinges on the dual factors of solid support and recognized status. The employees, reassured by the management’s explicit empathy towards their cause, found themselves confident enough to resist the domineering attempts of customers.

In addition, the illusion of consumer supremacy barely existed in the first place, hence it couldn’t be dismantled. The staff aimed to perceive customers not as infallible, superior beings. They saw them as fellow citizens who occasionally had justifiable reasons for their upset. This shift in perspective led customers, in return, to view staff less as impersonal, potential punching bags. They saw them more as dedicated professionals striving to assist them. In the words of one employee, “It’s actually amazing that people are so understanding.”

However, this wasn’t an ideal world by any stretch. One staff member, a former police department employee, resigned after expressing her preference for handling criminals over dealing with demanding customers. Some employees even created “communities of coping.” Another employee humorously remarked about the necessary mindset: “You must be a masochist. You really must be.”

But when considering the overall picture, the strength of resilience stood out. Conversations around a “customer-contact spirit” circulated. Employees felt a sense of value and respect. The menace of a downward spiral into dehumanized and damaging relationships was diminished. This improvement was a direct outcome of applying appropriate organizational and cultural practices.

A simple question of support

We remain unsure of the realistic endurance limit of such resilience. It appears likely that, over time, everyone might succumb to exhaustion. Despite the world’s best and most well-intentioned management mechanisms, they offer no concrete protection against the relentless deterioration caused by long-term customer abuse.

This concept nudges us towards a well-known, yet crucial principle that needs reiteration: Prevention surpasses cure. An almost unparalleled combination of circumstances placed the participants of the cited study at the heart of an extraordinarily intense storm. This research emphasizes potential improvements in our response to customer abuse. Simultaneously, we mustn’t overlook that in social market economies, such abuse seldom surfaces initially. This is primarily because the conducive conditions for such abuse are significantly less widespread.

Echoing my previous point, this isn’t about giving employees carte blanche to engage in unabridged confrontations. Rather, as the referenced study implies, it revolves around ensuring employees feel justified and secure. Above all, supported in delivering a wholly appropriate response to utterly unacceptable behaviour. When you weigh it all up, isn’t that a fair request?

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

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Nottingham University Business School specialises in developing leadership potential, encouraging innovation and enterprise, and developing a global outlook in its students, partners, and faculty. It is recognised as one of the world’s top business schools for integrating responsible and sustainable business issues into its undergraduate, MBA, MSc, PhD, and executive programmes and has unrivalled global reach through Nottingham’s campuses in the UK, China, and Malaysia. The School holds a Small Business Charter Award in recognition of its important role in supporting small and medium enterprises. It is accredited by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and ranks among the UK’s top ten for research power.