Is the customer always right?

In Germany they were named kings and in Japan they were called gods, but before all of that, at his London department store in 1909, Harry Gordon Selfridge declared that, most importantly of all, they were always right.


He was, of course, referring to the customer.  Ever since, the phrase ‘the customer is always right’ has been the golden rule for any and all retailers hoping to make good money.  But is it really true?

Perhaps in those calmer days, with Britain revelling in the golden era that followed the Industrial Revolution, and with the horrors of the First World War still five years away, it was.  Indeed, up until that time, many customers had lived in fear of caveat emptor, ‘let the buyers beware’, when the retailer was more likely to swindle them than the other way around.

Yet, in the years since Selfridge first coined the phrase, society has changed a great deal, and so the question now stands: Is ‘the customer is always right’ always right?


Just one drop in the ocean

It’s true that we always remember one criticism over one hundred praises, and yet, in order to succeed in business, you need to rely on the many and not the few.  A disgruntled customer may lose you one sale, but if leaving that customer disgruntled means you satisfy many others, then sometimes that one lost sale is worth it.

All opinions are not equal

Anyone who’s ever worked in a customer-facing position will be able to tell you of at least one person they’ve been faced with who’s tried to tell them how to do their own job properly.  You might have trained for years and spent many, many hours gaining qualifications, but some people will still believe that they know better than you.  These are probably the same people who state incorrect facts on social media and refuse to be corrected even when you’ve provided them with proof of their mistake.  Unfortunately, they are everywhere in today’s world, and yet regardless of how many times they might try to tell you otherwise, these customers are not always right.

Employees first, customers second

Less than ten years after Selfridge declared the customer’s opinion irrefutable, another young businessman was looking at things a bit differently.  John Spedan Lewis, son of that John Lewis, recognised the need to keep employees happy in order to achieve success in business.  In doing so, he turned deficits into profit and launched the John Lewis Partnership scheme which remains to this day one of the most successful employee-owned companies in the world.


One of the biggest criticisms of Selfridge’s mantra is that it fails to recognise the value of employees and how more needs to be done to protect them from customers rather than the other way around.  In fact, a study carried out by the University of Warwick a few years ago declared that employee happiness can increase productivity by 12%.  So, whilst pleasing the customer may seem like the obvious way to make a profit, a well-supported and satisfied employee is just as, if not more, important!


Written by Transcriber Lydia

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