The customer is always right

Some may argue that the old adage that “the customer is always right”, coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge in the early 20th century, is no longer true.

I disagree.

Selfridge’s statement is not only more true than ever, but the phrase should be embraced by companies in order to avoid public relations crises.



The Very Bad

Marketers and public relations pros used to accept the theory that when one customer is unhappy, they tell 9-10 people and those people tell 9-10 more, etcetera, etcetera . . . until word spread.  It wasn’t until probably the 100th person heard about the bad experience, and quite some time had passed, that companies might have gotten wind of the bad experience, if at all.

Ah, those were the good old days.

The days before social media.

Social media expedites public relations crises. 

Social media allows everyone to have an instant voice.  The worse stories, the ones with the most shock value, spread the quickest.

Take my 20-something friend Debbie’s* experience with a local restaurant at lunch today.  She ordered a medium-rare burger as take-out.  Someone at her work picked up her order for her.  When she opened up the take-out container, all looked fine.  That is until she bit into her burger to discover it was completely raw.

Debbie is very sweet and kind, and doesn’t like to complain about these things.  Instead, her co-worker called the restaurant and shared the concern. The restaurant told Debbie’s coworker, “You should never order a burger medium rare, it will always be too rare.”

At this point Debbie was frustrated, so she did what nearly everyone does.

She posted her experience on Facebook with a picture of the burger.


“So apparently it’s my fault that they severely under cooked a burger.” Photo used with permission.


Within a couple of hours, 19 people chose an emoji expressing different levels of dislike , and 24 different people commented their disgust.  One even shared Debbie’s misery with similar experiences from the same restaurant.

With the current social media algorithms, all of those 43 people’s Facebook friends may have seen Debbie’s post, multiplying Debbie’s bad experience far greater and faster than the old word-of-mouth way could have ever accomplished.

I wonder how many of those people

  • would not patronize this restaurant again because of Debbie’s post?
  • would not even try this place at all if they have never been?
  • would tell others about Debbie’s experience via word-of-mouth or social media if they heard the name of the restaurant spoken or posted?


Consider these scenarios developing from Debbie’s bad customer service.

  • What if Debbie also posted the same complaint on her other social media accounts. She didn’t , but how many more people may have seen her bad experience if she had?
  • Imagine if more than one customer had a bad customer service experience at the same restaurant on the same day. Imagine that the same bad customer service continues day after day. How many more social media posts will there be?
  • Imagine if customers visiting the restaurant overheard the phone conversation with Debbie’s co-worker. Is the worker/manager/owner rolling their eyes while speaking? Is the tone of their voice relaying their own frustration?


Without realizing it, within minutes, this restaurant has a public relations situation on their hands because of one bad customer service experience.

Selfridge’s phrase “the customer is always right” is not 100% correct.  After all, not every one is right all the time, and some customers can be downright nasty.  However, the spirit of Selfridge’s phrase is accurate.  All customers need to feel like they are right, especially the ones with the biggest social media voices.

The Bad

Bad customer service resurfaces, especially on social media.

The restaurant refused to refund Debbie’s money, but did offer her a free one of the same value.  Debbie is giving the free sandwich to a friend because she no longer wishes to patronize this restaurant. And she said so in one of the comments on her post, which only solidifies the bad experience for her friends.

I would guess that if another co-worker asks Debbie in the future if she would like to order lunch from this place, she will decline and explain her experience to them, maybe even showing them her Facebook post.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

In the old days, a person rarely had a visual aid to back up their bad customer experience. Social media had changed that.

Even if Debbie regrets her post and deletes it, a whole bunch of people have already seen the post and will remember it. They’ll remember the name of the restaurant and associate it with that horrible looking picture of raw meat.

People don’t often share good customer service experiences.  The old theory was that happy customers rarely share their good experiences is still true for social media.

When I asked Debbie if she would have posted this at all if the restaurant had offered her better customer service and a satisfactory resolution, she said that she wouldn’t have.

While it’s good that Debbie wouldn’t have posted the picture of her raw burger if she had better customer service, it’s bad for the restaurant that she wouldn’t have even shared her favorable customer service.

Another bad thing about social media is that people don’t often want to hear the good.

Earlier this month, I sent my husband to the store to pick up a few things.  One of those items was dry cat food.  He ended up choosing the right brand, but a different variety than what we normally use.  No big deal.  But when we opened the bag, it smelled horrible, like rotten meat.  We were ready to just throw out the bag, or take it back to the store and go get another, when my sister-in-law suggested that we call the company.  My husband got on the phone, and within days we received a pile of coupons, including one for a completely free bag up to $23.79.  I was so impressed that I decided to post the experience on my Facebook page.


A few people liked the post, but others just wanted to pick apart my choice of cat food brands. One person who commented is not my Facebook friend, nor do I know them.



Even though my intentions were to praise the company for it’s excellent customer service, some weren’t buying it.  Even after I tried to stop the discussion by saying “I just really just wanted to commend Purina for their excellent customer service because so often we don’t hear about the good things companies do” they couldn’t help themselves from continuing the argument.

Which, brings me back to my point how social media has changed customer service.

Even when you post good customer service experiences, someone somewhere, even people you don’t know, have an alternative opinion that they are not shy about sharing.

Sometimes public relations can be an uphill battle on social media.


The Good

Before social media, unhappy customers rarely told the company that they had a bad customer service with about their experience.  Often companies were blindsided when the news finally got back to them.  Sometimes, it was too late.  The damage had been done, and it was a really, really hard, costly and long marketing and public relations process to earn back trust.

Social media allows companies to quickly respond to complaints.

A company that adapts Selfridge’s theory that “the customer is always right” can set themselves apart from their competition by almost instantly responding in the customer’s favor.  And that response will become a part of the social media discussion, not just the original complaint.

Let’s revisit Debbie’s experience.

Since she mentioned the restaurant’s name in the post, the restaurant may see it.

If you were in charge of the restaurant’s social media, how would you handle the situation? Would you defend your initial response to Debbie, or would you do everything possible to change the situation in your favor?

If you were a smart public relations manager, you’d do everything possible to change the narrative.

Which means you would have to accept that Debbie is right and you are wrong.

It might be as simple as saying

“We’re sorry we didn’t cook your burger to your liking.  Can we make it up to you with a free burger, fries and soda? We’d love to keep you as a customer!”

If all of Debbie’s 43 (and counting) friends saw that, not only would Debbie be happy, but they would be, too.  People are more readily to accept that not every company gets it right 100% of the time when they see you are able to admit your mistakes and make the customer happy.

Admitting the customer is always right changes the narrative of Debbie’s post, Debbie’s friends and their friends would see your excellent customer service, and admitting you’re wrong can quickly put out the public relations fire.



*Debbie is not her real name, but has been changed with permission.


As always, thanks for following!






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