The customer is always right- is that still true?

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There is an old adage that has been attributed to Harry Gordon Selfridge that ‘the customer is always right’. This is accompanied by other sayings like ‘the customer is king’ and it has become something of a mantra within the hospitality industry, however, things have changed since the early 1900’s and the opening of Selfridges, so does the saying still hold true?

I was recently enjoying a quiet lunch and had the opportunity to observe a family leading their poor waiter in a merry dance in an attempt to appease them. Though clearly stressed and doing his utmost, the family were still dissatisfied, though their demands had come at the price of the other guests’ experience. This led me to question the cardinal rule of hospitality.

There are two sides to every story and while customers will feel their servers should go above and beyond to meet their needs, serving staff will be quick to clarify that some customers have unreasonable expectations. So is there a middle ground or do we stick to the rule of thumb?

The power of great customer service

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The hospitality industry prides itself on the user experience and I spoke about this in a previous post ‘What a difference the staff make’. Great customer service is not to be sniffed at, but there is a fine line between offering exceptional service and indulging unreasonable behaviour. Darron runs a blog, The Bitchy Waiter, which is about his own experience as a server, and while he spends a good portion of his time bemoaning the difficulties that customers present, he is clear that despite the name and tone of the blog, he does his utmost to give the best possible service.

This is especially important when it comes to customisation. No matter how long the list of alternative ingredients, servers should be doing everything possible to produce the dish the way the customer ordered it.

When customers are unreasonable

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Since the launch of online reviews, there has been a certain amount of he said/she said and with a restaurant’s reputation at stake it is important that it is a true representation. As many of these reviews are public, it also opens up the issue for other people to weigh in with their opinion. Often it is these comments that reflect whether the poor review is justified.

It also means that an establishment did not adhere to ‘the customer is always right’ and fix whatever issue caused the disruption, or perhaps they did but not to a customer’s satisfaction. Darron makes an effort to seek out one star reviews and see if they are justified, often they are for reasons that The Bitchy Waiter believes to be either common sense, or beyond the server’s power, however as front of house staff are often the first in the firing line, they take the brunt of customer frustration.

On some occasions, guests that are dissatisfied ask to take an issue higher, hoping a manager or even an owner of an independently run business will be able to sort through their problem. In many cases, this is a perfect response and everyone is able to continue to enjoy their dining experience, however, if it is against company policy or an unreasonable request, often this escalates negative feelings on a customer’s part. If labouring under ‘The customer is always right’ then management will do their utmost to see a customer happy, but does this leave the wait staff feeling unsupported?

When management steps in

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Supporting your staff will help create a positive working environment, and one way of doing this is by supporting them against customers. This goes against all of the ‘Customer first’ and ‘Customer is king’ attitudes that prevail in modern day society, but some people believe this makes them more effective and thus able to give better customer service.


Vineet Nayar, who wrote the bestselling book ‘Employees First, Customers Second’ told Forbes: “the business of managers and management should be to enthuse and encourage employees so that they can create a different shared value: enhance employees first and customers second.

This attitude has been taken up by various businesses across the country and instead of receiving censure they have been praised by other guests. One incident that The Bitchy Waiter covers in a post ‘Restaurant boss stands up for staff and shames horrible customer’ sees other guests praise management for adhering to their principles. Kaity on Yelp says:

While we were enjoying our dessert, there was an altercation between a customer and the staff. She was being extremely rude and disruptive, and extremely disrespectful to the staff. The staff were doing everything they could to try to appease her (while still being incredibly attentive to the rest of the patronage). It became clear that she was trying to get a free meal, and she was asked to leave by the owner, David. She refused and the police were called. It was nice to see that David had his employee’s back in this situation and didn’t put up with trying to be swindled.”

So, in reality, ‘The customer is always right’ only goes so far. Many servers and other customers would prefer to see staff treated with respect as opposed to poor behaviours being rewarded with discounts and freebies. This should in no way impact on service, customisation is expected in hospitality, and the customer should get exactly what they order in the best manner possible, but not at the expense of others.