No, Virginia, The Customer Is NOT Always Right

I remember when it happened the first time. I'm sure you do too, just with your own story.

A customer came up to me and asked, "So, do I even need to go to the register, or can I just walk out of here with this?"

Dumbfounded, I looked at the person and asked the appropriate, "What?"

The customer then pointed at a sign that stated that the package of software that he was holding was selling for "$0*".

"It's free. Can I just walk out of here with it or is somebody going to stop me?"

The sign also read: "* - Paid as a mail-in rebate. Full purchase price due at the time of purchase. Tax excluded."

This was something called a "Net-to-Zero" promotion, where the entire purchase price of the item was to be returned in a check from the company as a mail-in rebate. Unsurprisingly, people often never read beyond the price in the ad, and it was not going to get any easier getting them to read in a store.

"Oh, haha! No. Unfortunately, you have to purchase the item here and then mail-in the receipt for the rebate from the company. They have all of the forms upfront at the register when you check out." I replied, trying to keep a straight face.

"That's bulls***! I want to talk to a manager!" was the instant anger of someone who has found out that they are going to jail for someone else's crime.

I sighed. Unfortunately for me, I was the manager and this was something that I dealt with... often. Customers just did not seem to want to read the entire ad or sign that we had painstakingly crafted to explain the promotion, they just wanted what they wanted.

Of course, the next thing out of the customer's mouth was something that makes anyone in retail, or in sales in general, cringe:

"Haven't you heard that the customer is always right?"

Whom the heck thought up this ridiculous phrase?!?

The fact is, I had heard it. A lot. From a lot of different people. It is part of our zeitgeist, that customers are somehow infallible and whatever they ask for is now gospel.

Coined in the late 1800's by retail pioneer Marshall Fields (among others), the phrase became very popular at a time when retail was less regulated and things like social media and media, in general, were not as prevalent as they have been for the last 30 years. It was a saying that empowered the customer and made sure that sellers were not trying to take advantage of the customers during a time that other phrases such as "buyer beware" and salespeople twirling their mustaches were a thing.

By 1914 though, people were starting to become wise to how ridiculous this phrase was but, for some reason, it never really died out the way that it should have. Customers can be dishonest, self-serving, and downright ignorant... should we cater to these bad behaviors?

Amazingly, there are people that believe this to be the case. Those people? Customers. Usually the dishonest, self-serving and downright ignorant ones.

What do we do? How do we make right this phrase designed to protect consumers without completely damaging our business?

We change the mindset.

Customers are not always right, but they should always come first.

In fact, customers are RARELY right. That is why they are customers. If they were always right, they would be salespeople.

Not true, but the fact that customers are not always right means that salespeople have jobs. Most customers are ignorant of most of the subtleties of whatever you are selling, and they need our, salespeople's, help to get them going in the right direction. The fact that customers do not know gives us a tremendous amount of value to our clients.

So, let's just assume that the customer is going to be wrong, and often. Let's change our mindset so that we can communicate to the customer in a way that is not damaging to our relationship, but lets them understand that, though they are important, their comprehension of the situation needs some clarification.

Let's soften the blow by servicing the hell out of them.

Changing expectations.

"Oh man," I said, in a way that was empathetic, "I totally understand where you are coming from. I know the first time that I saw this promotion, I was really confused as well, but it was such a good deal that I just went ahead and did it and was surprised when the check was in my mailbox a number of weeks later. It was like a surprise!

"I tell you what, when you are ready to check-out up front, come back or have the people at the registers call me up and I will be happy to fill out the redemption certificate with you and I will even have the store pay for the stamp to send it in today! Here is my card, just hand it to the person at the register when you get there. Also, keep it and let me know when you receive the rebate. I like to make sure that this process is working well for everyone."

Did it work? I have no idea. The gentleman took my card and walked off with the box. I did not see a cop car in the parking lot, so I assume that he either put the box back or went up to the front and bought the software and took the form home because I never heard from the customer about this situation again.