How the “Customer Is Always Right” Mindset Can Destroy Employee Engagement

When Vineet Nayar joined HCL Technologies as the CEO, he vowed to transform it into a company where employees were first—and customers were second.
 
Nayar believed that if he could inspire his people to pursue a vision which they owned and which still aligned with the company’s, magic would happen. And his experiment proved him right.
 
On this premise, he set to work to make it one of the fastest-growing and most profitable global IT services as well as one of the 20 most influential companies in the world.

But it required challenging the conventional wisdom that the customer is always right.
 
While at some level, this commonly heard business maxim speaks truth, in application it can lead to deadly results for employee engagement if we don't talk about where the line drawn on customer behavior.

As Alexander Kjerulf, author of Happy Hour is 9 to 5, tells it, Southwest drew a line with a frequent flyer who consistently complained about things that were simply part of their business model—like no assigned seats, no first class, no in-flight meals, and the casual atmosphere.

Wearied by her repeated tirades, Southwest's customer relations people eventually sent her comments on to then-CEO Herb Kelleher, who replied: "Dear Mrs. X, We will miss you. Love, Herb."
 
“Believing the customer is always right is a subconscious way of favoring the customer over the employee which can lead to resentment among employees. … Put employees first and they will be happy at work," says Kjerulf.
 
It is not too low of a bar to expect civility of both employees and customers, and yet most of us have witnessed the lack of it too many times in the workplace. As is often the case, the challenge is in the execution. It can feel a lot like refereeing siblings in a "he started it, she started it" squabble. But, as leaders, we're called to adjudicate these situations to determine whether an employee's behavior wrongly incited a frustrated customer, or whether a customer is being unreasonable, rude, or insulting.
 
To preserve a workplace with high engagement, a business must live its values—not just talk about them. This could mean walking away from some clients if their behavior does not allow the company to live up to its values of treating its own people with respect. Tolerating rude, insulting, or abusive behavior by customers drains the energy of employees and lowers morale. It effectively tells the employee that they do not deserve better treatment from others.
 
It's important to think about where popular ideas like "the customer is always right" reach their limits. Intuitively, we know that treating people well and providing a work environment that isn't hostile can help them flourish. This kind of environment unleashes loyalty, creativity, and the desire to take better care of the customers. In the end, respecting and retaining top employees not only impacts engagement, but ensures that your customers have the very best people attending to them.

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