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Is The Customer Always Right? 5 Times When The Answer Is “Yes”

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Even though my mother warned me against using words like “always” and “never” – and maybe yours did too – one adage has been immune to Mom’s scrutiny: The customer is always right.

Right?

Well, there was a time not so long ago when many businesses believed it. Or at least claimed to believe it. The slogan is associated with the defunct Chicago-based department store Marshall Field’s, but many mid-20th Century corporations embraced it, on the surface.

It’s also been used – and abused – by customers and businesses the world over. Businesses invoke it to demonstrate their commitment to customer service, even when they don’t mean it; customers leverage it to get their way, even when they don’t deserve it.

Is the customer always right? Here are five times when they answer is “yes”:

1. When it costs nothing to let you have your way

Often, good service costs a company absolutely nothing. It’s a smile, a “thank you” – and when something goes wrong, an “I’m sorry.” A genuine apology is totally free and can go a long way toward making up for a bad customer experience.  When an argument is easily resolved with an apology (even when the customer is wrong) then why can’t the customer be right?

2. When the law is on your side

Companies often confuse their own policy for the law, and vice versa. For example: The law says that if a company doesn’t provide the service you paid for, it’s in breach of contract. That supersedes any company policy regarding refunds or replacements. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that if you didn’t get what you paid for, you deserve a full refund.

3. When a company is obviously negligent

If the widget you bought breaks down or a company’s product falls woefully short of its promises, there’s no argument. You’re right, and you’re owed a refund or replacement. Again, companies hide behind contractual fine print, saying it’s not their “policy” to let you return the product, or they charge you a confiscatory “restocking” fee. But that assumes their product was what it was supposed to be.

4. When a company can’t afford to lose your business

Right or wrong, if you’re the customer and you threaten to take your business elsewhere, it doesn’t matter – you are right. But only if the company has determined that you’re not worth losing. Unfortunately, many companies fail to make that determination and let you take your business to a competitor, which may be just as well.

5. When the circumstances of your complaint would look really bad published on a site like this one

Shaming a company into seeing things your way is a lot easier today, in a hyperconnected world where social media can topple a company’s reputation. Threatening to take your grievance online can often mean getting your way – whether you’re right or not. Because you have the power of the Internet at your disposal, you are right.

But no, Mom, the customer isn’t “always” right (sorry). Next week, I’ll offer five cases where the customer is wrong.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitterand Facebook or send him your questions by email.