A king and queen buying groceries and paying at the cashier, unhappy to find the customer isn't always right

Picture this: you’re out shopping when a raised voice at the cash register draws your attention. Turning, you see a store clerk murmuring apologies as a seething woman (let’s call her Karen) shrieks, “I want to speak to your manager!”

If you’ve worked in sales, you’ve most likely been at the receiving end of a customer meltdown. No matter the reason, if the customer feels they have been wronged, then the staff must try to appease them. After all, just like royalty, the customer is always right.

Or are they?

In recent years, we’ve begun to see a change in this cornerstone of sales mentality. There’s more and more evidence that the customer is not always right. Even HuffPost and Forbes are chiming in to agree.

What’s causing the change in the wind? Here are two transforming relationships that are potential influences―and what they mean for your business if customers don’t always come first.

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A New Public-Customer-Company Relationship

Dictionary.com defines a customer as “a person who purchases goods or services from another.” In other words, traditionally all someone had to do to be a customer was buy something. And it helped that interactions between customers and sellers stayed between those two parties, maybe reaching further for something truly gossip worthy. But now, even small incidents spread like wildfire on a global scale.

Take the Delta Airlines Flight 4017 incident as an example. Not only was a passenger kicked off a flight for her behavior (yelling at a young mother and her crying baby), but the footage, taken by another customer, went viral and cost her her career.

But why? The woman paid for her ticket, didn’t she? Why would another customer interfere?

Because social media told other customers they could—even shouldinterfere.

According to Statista, 3.6 billion people were on social media in 2020, and that number is predicted to reach 4.41 billion by 2025. An article by Forbes further reveals that 64.5% of people currently get their news via social media, rather than through traditional news channels. On top of all that, 3.6 billion people now have smartphones.

All of those people talking to each other, taking pictures, and sharing videos completely rebalances the issue of accountability. Reactions to mislabeled prices, unclear sales terms, dubious return policies, or other customer headaches are seen and judged by more than the employee receiving a tongue lashing. Everyone feels involved. More people are asking, “Whose fault was this really? And was it really worth all that screaming?”

What does this mean for businesses?

Businesses are now in a public relationship with every customer. So, as a business leader, how do you make everyone involved in this relationship happy? Like you would in any healthy relationship: set consistent boundaries.

If a product can only be offered in red, then do so—no exceptions if a customer demands it in blue. Want your employees to be treated with respect? Side with them when a customer treats them poorly. Be clear, be firm, and be concise. If you do that right, other customers in the relationship shouldn’t feel that they have to step in when Karen calls you unfair.

But beware: if your company is being unfair, you’re accountable for that, too!

Angry face of a Karen customer who believes the customer is always right
No one believes the customer is always right more than Karen! | iStock/sdominick

A New Employee-Employer Power Balance

It isn’t just customers who find themselves in a peculiar situation as we shift away from customers always being right. Companies are also realizing a new order to things: treat your employees well, they stay; make them feel miserable, and they’ll head for greener pastures.

And not only will they leave, but they’ll leverage those blooming social networks to tell the world why they left. Websites such as Glassdoor allow employees to leave honest reviews explicitly to deter or attract future staff, all while staying completely anonymous. Just one example of this is  CNBC’s take on tech workers turning down jobs at TikTok because of bad employee reviews.

Add COVID-19 to the mix, and yet another problem encourages employees to seek greener pastures.

With a taste of working from home long term, few employees are willing to go back to the way things once were. Some industries, such as restaurants, are struggling to find new staff. Others are fighting to get their current workforce to return to the workplace. A survey by Flexjobs says that 58% of those surveyed would rather quit their job than return if they are forced to go back to the office. Only 2% want to return to the office full-time. Those who don’t like what the company offers have a world of resources at their fingertips to find a new position.

In short, it used to be employees begging companies to take them on. Now the power balance has flipped.

Does that really sound like a world where customers reign supreme?

What does this mean for businesses?

You don’t need to build an employee utopia like Google’s headquarters to win employees back, but you do need to offer your employees more than a job. Listen to their voices and ask them how to improve as a company together. Visit company review websites and take the praise with grace—and the criticism seriously.

Happy employees mean happy customers, and happy customers tend to lead to flourishing businesses.

If the customer isn’t right, who is?

So with the customer no longer always being right, where does that leave us? Surely, businesses still need to treat their customers with respect. Good customer service is as vital as ever. However, we’ve entered an era where customers need to treat businesses and employees with respect, as well.

Both customers and businesses have gained and lost power. And the public, the new king on the throne deciding who’s right or wrong? They’re not about to be dethroned anytime soon.

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