The customer is always right is a maxim you’ve probably heard a number of times. If you’ve been working in the retail or hospitality industries for very long, though, you’ve likely also been asked the Do you believe the customer is always right? interview question. It’s something hiring managers will often ask in order to gauge a candidate’s views on customer service.
For today’s post, I asked the members of the TimeForge team how they’d answer this common interview question based on their own experiences in retail. Here’s what they had to say, boiled down into practical advice with examples:
Provide excellent customer service regardless of “right” or “wrong”
A common theme among responses from the TimeForge team is that you should always provide excellent customer service. No matter if the customer is technically right or wrong. Listen to the customer, and make sure they feel heard.
“When it comes to working in restaurants and retail, I’d say the customer is always right most of the time,” says Diego Gaytan, our Support Team Lead. “For example, when I worked as a server, we sometimes ran out items on the menu. When this happened, we’d obviously have some upset customers. While I couldn’t give them the items on the menu, I could give them alternatives or reach a compromise. I could let them know when the item would be back or recommend other menu items. Ideally, we want to make sure the customer feels heard while not bending company policy or setting unrealistic expectations.”
Isla Gibson-Butcher, our Solutions Manager, had similar feedback from her own experience in the hospitality industry. “Simply put, no, the customer is not always right. However, you should listen to all customer feedback and concerns and address them accordingly,” she says. “For example, if a customer asks for something outside the scope of company policy, you cannot bend the rules for them. But you can find viable solutions that leave them feeling heard. A customer being wrong doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be given excellent customer service. Employers have a responsibility to train their staff to handle dynamic customer service situations. This helps to avoid conflict, improve customer service, and promote customer satisfaction.”
Value the customers who are “wrong,” as they likely have good feedback
“In my experience, rarely is the customer wrong,” says Erik van Gilder, our Chief Technology Officer. “Often the reflex is to label the complaining customer as wrong. Suppress that reflex. Instead, ask why the customer is upset. Do you understand their real problem?”
When it comes to his own experience working in the tech industry, Erik says it’s important to make sure that the business is a good partner, not just a vendor. “Sometimes the customer is just the wrong fit for the product,” he explains. “Or perhaps the customer outgrew the product. If so, garner goodwill by helping them migrate to a new product.”
Regardless, every complaint is an opportunity to collect valuable feedback. “Value those ‘wrong’ customers,” says Erik. “They are likely expressing discontent that many other silent customers are not sharing with you.” It’s much harder to collect feedback from silent customers, so it’s important that you view every complaint as a valuable opportunity to gain insight into your customer base. Erik adds, “The one obvious exception [to the customer is always right mentality] is when the customer attempts to make you complicit in unethical or illegal activities such as cheating employees or customers.” In those rare cases, it’s the employer’s reponsibility to protect the business, even if it means refusing something that the customer wants.
Train your staff well to maintain consistent service, no matter your audience
Mike Hetisimer, our Implementations expert, says, “I think it depends greatly on the market you serve. Sticking specifically with retail, you wouldn’t go into a Dick’s Last Resort and expect ‘The customer is always right!’ treatment, as obnoxious service is actually a quirky part of their appeal! That said, I think it’s important to draw a line with customer service, and that’s something that should likely be a management decision based on context. You should always do your best to support customers and make things right. But that doesn’t mean that the customer is always right.”
Whether right or wrong, it’s important to have a procedure in place and to train your team to stick to it. He explains, “The safest thing to do is teach your employees who interact with customers good customer service skills. If a customer starts to abuse or push the line, have staff escalate to management who can make the appropriate call if going ‘above and beyond’ is the right move.” Ultimately, you want to make sure customers don’t take advantage of your business while still providing excellent customer service to all.
Increase customer satisfaction through good communication
“I think ‘the customer is always right’ is the simplest, best way to communicate to entry-level employees that service comes first,” says Audrey Hogan, Chief Operations Officer. “However, I much prefer the phrase, ‘The customer may not always be right, but they’re always the customer.’ In my experience, 99% of the time, the customer IS always right – but not always about the thing they think they’re right about.
For example, a customer orders a steak mid-rare. It’s plated and served perfectly mid-rare. The customer sends it back, upset that their steak is undercooked. The manager takes a look and confirms to the cook and server that it’s a perfect mid-rare… but the customer isn’t necessarily wrong. They may be wrong about the done-ness of the steak, but they’re not wrong for expressing a concern. They’re still the customer, so let’s figure out how we serve them better. Perhaps we aren’t clearly communicating to customers what mid-rare looks like; perhaps last time he ate here, he received a mid-rare order that was really a medium, and we set the wrong expectation with him.”
Either way, good communication is the way forward. “If a customer has a concern, it’s up to you to figure out how to delight them,” Audrey says. “Maybe his experience makes you realize that you could avoid steak sendbacks by printing a visual guide of steak done-ness and having your servers show it to customers to confirm their preference during ordering. Maybe servers need more descriptive confirmation scripts when someone orders steak – maybe ‘a lot of pink’ isn’t descriptive enough. The customer is always the customer, and we should always be listening to them, finding the underlying messages in their feedback – because that’s the fastest way your business gets better.”
More tips and advice on customer service
For more advice on providing top notch customer service, we recommend this post about customer service in retail by John Collins. If you work in restaurants, you may also like: Food Service Skills You Need To Succeed or 10 Restaurant Interview Questions.