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, who in 1914 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 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 the 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.

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


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