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The customer isn’t always right

Louise AmantaniLast week I witnessed quite a long altercation on a train between a passenger and the train manager: the passenger was insisting that the trains were filthy, that it was like “travelling in a third world country,” accused her of lying when she said the train was cleaned every night, and refused to complain in writing because he was sure his complaint would be ignored.

He was talking loudly enough that several of us in the adjoining seats were listening in, and three of us intervened at the end to confirm that the train certainly met our standards of cleanliness. The incident confirmed me in a pet peeve of mine: actually, the doctrine of “the customer is always right” can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Obviously everyone wants to feel that their custom is valued, and everyone is entitled to be treated with respect. But we should all remember that customer-facing staff deserve to be treated with respect too.


I should declare my vested interest: as someone who worked in customer service for around 3 years, I’ve dealt with quite a few customers myself who were as confident of their rightness as I was confident of their wrongness. The potential for conflict is exacerbated by the fact that train staff, and customer service employees more generally, tend to speak to customers at a time when they are stressed, when they have a problem for which they want a quick and easy fix.

I think a lot of people also tend to assume in advance – like the passenger in my anecdote above – that the person they will speak to is either stupid or lazy, or powerless to help. When both speakers are steeling themselves for antagonism before a conversation has even begun, it obviously doesn’t bode well for that conversation. It’s also worth remembering that people in customer-facing roles are often not paid very much for having conversations that are at best boring, and at worst, downright aggressive, all day, every day.

Another risk of elevating “the customer is always right” to the level of dogma is that it tends to blind certain customers to the fact that what they see as a monumental injustice is sometimes in fact little more than a subjective hang-up. In the case of the passenger mentioned above, I don’t know what trains he travelled on in the developing world, but they must have been spectacular. The crucial skill for all organisations is to quantify customer complaints: if 80% of your passengers say your train is dirty, the train is dirty. If 0.08% say it’s dirty, maybe it’s not actually that dirty.

This, of course, is the role that we play as a research agency in helping not only train operators, but all sorts of organisations. By gathering customer feedback regularly and in large quantities, we help them to understand whether a hundred people are speaking together, or just one person is shouting very loudly. And by interpreting and analysing this data, we help them to understand which customers are right, and which are – not wrong, but perhaps a lower priority.

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