September 15, 2023

The Customer Isn’t Always Right. But They’re Probably Close.

I recently got to be a fly on the wall for a conversation that a business owner had with a customer. The business owner was tired and frustrated with something he was dealing with before the call, and the customer was calling about a problem with a purchase they had recently made. What I heard surprised me, but I can empathize: the business owner was short, cold, and sounded like he didn’t want their business.

My visceral reaction in the moment was, “What are you thinking!?” As a fellow business owner, I knew that this man was killing his brand with this person, but I felt for him because he was tired and the customer wasn’t listening to him. Everybody says “the customer is always right,” but that’s not really true. Sometimes you’re just dealing with an unreasonable person. But, I’m willing to bet that’s not the situation you’re dealing with most of the time.

“Everybody says the customer is always right, but that’s not really true.”

Why People Say “The Customer is Always Right.”

The popular phrase, “The customer is always right.” is a derivation of something that the famed César Ritz used to say, “Le client n'a jamais tort.” What, you can’t read French? Heh, neither can I. It translates to, “The customer is never wrong.” If you’ve ever watched or listened to my show, you know that I am a huge fan of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. What César Ritz meant when he said that was really that you need to endeavor to understand what is causing the problem. The reality is that they may not be right, but they’re probably close.

Take our beleaguered business owner for instance. He was tired and frustrated, but it turns out that the reason the customer had a problem was because the company’s email system wasn’t getting through the customer’s spam filter. To the business owner, that was just life because they were having a problem with their email distribution. To the customer, they never got the email they expected from the system, and the idea that they would have to look in their spam folder for it was probably a cumbersome step. Furthermore, it was probably ludicrous to the customer that the business owner expected them to look in their spam folder. But, when you’re in the trenches, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Here is a quick framework to give to your team to help them avoid making the same mistake.

What to Do When the Customer is Wrong


  • Get control of yourself. Acknowledge your feelings and decide to act instead of react.


  • If it’s the company’s fault, say you’re sorry. If it’s not the company’s fault, say you’re sorry for what they are experiencing. Either way, you’re acknowledging their feelings and disarming them.
  • NEVER respond in kind. You will be remembered and judged by how you acted more than how the customer acted, especially if there are onlookers.


  • Ask the customer what happened in an effort to do a root cause analysis.
  • Listen and try to deduce the truth by triangulating the customer’s account of what happened, any internal accounts, and your own knowledge of the business.


  • Make the customer whole, even if they are dead wrong. The objective is to come out of this above reproach without rewarding bad behavior, so if there was a mistake, make it right. If there wasn’t a mistake, don’t make one now by giving them a reason to badmouth your business. This doesn’t mean be a doormat. Read on.
  • If they are disrespectful, take a page out of Horst Schulze’s book: invite them to do business somewhere else. Go so far as to pay their way to do business with your competitor and explain to them why you’re doing it. Everyone will respect you for it, even the disgruntled customer.

The customer may not always be right. But they are probably close, because they either can’t articulate what is wrong or they don’t know enough to properly diagnose the issue. If you treat them with dignity and respect, even if they are being disrespectful, you can turn the situation around into a brand and loyalty-building event instead of a crisis.

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