The customer really isn’t always right.

When you work retail – especially crappy corporate retail, you rarely seem to be a stone’s throw away from some middle-management clone keen to shower you in maxims, slogans and epithets. My favourite of these, from my wage-slave days at Blockbuster was ‘if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean’ – my response of choice being ‘if there’s time to tell me that, there’s time to fuck off and die slowly’ (the manager-staff relationship takes on a wonderful new dynamic when the store is understaffed and the manager’s ‘career’ depends on what staff he does have not quitting).

Anyway, the most heard, tired, cliched, well-known and oft-trotted-out pieces of drivel is ‘The customer is always right’. I’ve had this put to me by both management and customers over the years but anybody who has actually worked retail knows how painfully flawed this statement is.
At face value, the phrase is somewhat open to mischief. Often were the times I was tempted to steal money from the Blockbuster till and, when questioned, answer ‘I’m not great at maths, I let the customers work out how much change they were owed on each transaction – what with them being always right and all’.

of course, it’s designed as a customer service mantra. The customer must always be made to FEEL that they’re right. Customer service. Customer service. Customer. Service. The combination of those two words still has the ability to make me cringe. Customer service, it strikes me, was a concept that probably didn’t exist before maybe the sixties or seventies. I get the feeling that before the chains and corporations ransacked our country, customer service was known as politeness or common decency.

You shouldn’t have to be told to say good morning to somebody or smile, you shouldn’t have to be told to say please or thank you, but equally you shouldn’t have to be chastised or disciplined for choosing not to. The corporate world has eliminated this certain middle ground between rudeness and cheeriness. And, I reckon, that middle ground is where most of us would instinctively make camp.

When I think back to my early childhood, back when there were, of course, supermarkets but you only really bought your cans and packets there, you’d still go to the local greengrocers, bakers, butchers newsagents…., my strongest memory is of adult interaction. The way that grown-ups communicated and these shops were like a rainbow of response. Some would nod at your parents as you entered the shop – barely looking up from their newspaper. Others would greet them like long-lost family – calling them ‘love’ and keen to share their own news. Even though my parents clearly had never met them before. In some places, the staff wouldn’t even notice you, caught up in their own conversations. My point is that all of these reactions were entirely human and never, ever rude.

But modern – corporate – etiquette defines rude somewhat differently. To not actively greet your customer is now rude. To not say ‘have a nice day’ is rude. I’m very sensitive this, and really find it somewhat flipped over in my head. I think it’s rude to spew corporate platitudes. Do people exist out there who, when told ‘have a nice day’ by some tamed chav in a sainsburys polo shirt think ‘well, maybe I WILL!!!!’ and go off with a spring, previously lacking, in their step?

Recently, in Sainsburys, I was three times the victim of the evolution of corporate greetings – corporate small talk. Every Friday, I’ve noticed staff have been instructed to ask you of your weekend plans. Isn’t that sinister??? Like, with no emotion or interest whatsoever in the response. The first time caught me out; ‘What have you got planned for the weekend?’ ‘Uh… I’m…’ ‘have you got a nectar card?’. I wasn’t sure whether the conversation had moved on or been interrupted. Should I find my nectar card, then detail my weekend plans and ask her to reciprocate about her own? Of course not. She was too bored in her work to even establish eye contact. How happy I would genuinely have been had she been allowed to eschew the uniformity of instructed interaction in favour of a half-nod of acknowledgment and a raised eyebrow of ‘I hate this job’. I could have returned it with a half-nod and double-raised eyebrow of ‘I’ve been there’ and a half-smile of ‘don’t worry, it’s not forever’. But genuine human interaction is not allowed. because, apparently the customer prefers this. And they’re always right. I prefer the other. Does that make me right? Am I still a customer if I disagree?

The worst part of ‘the customer is always right’ mentality is that the phrase, ethos, whatever, has somehow escaped the back offices and training centres and found it’s way back to the customers themselves.

Customer service, intended as a way of guaranteeing the customer a good experience, has instead instilled a godlike ‘rightness’ into the minds of the simple customer.

There are a few circumstances in which, I feel, I’m USUALLY right. Even more in which I am SELDOM right. But I know, as an experienced human adult, that I am not ALWAYS right. This world would be sorry place if I were. Yet, within the corporate retail and commerce world, this maxim has been distilled and poured down the throats of valued customers for so long, they have – at least in their shopping lives – started to believe it.

Ultimately, this leads to the denigration of a whole section of society. People who work retail are told to check their humanity in at the door – their words, responses, knowledge and emotions are not welcome, they must adopt the official demeanour and wear the uniform. When the companies strip them of their humanity in this way, the customers (the worst of them, at least) will not see humanity in them and will gladly treat them as little more than, at best, second-class citizens and, at worst, slaves.

Where am I going with this? Especially since I know seem to be rallying for the human rights of the checkout staff I previously dismissed as chavs.

Well, I was in my Summertown branch yesterday and a middle-aged American woman stormed in and announced loudly and dramatically to a full shop of people ‘I AM A DISGRUNTLED CUSTOMER AND I WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO DO FOR ME’. My inner response to this, as a human being was ‘I’m going to wind you up until you storm out of here’. Which is exactly what I did, just with a veneer of politeness and reasonableness.

She had a valid complaint. She had rented a DVD which hadn’t played in her machine. On returning it, she had decided to swap her choice for the first disc of a TV box set. When she had got this home, she found that the SECOND disc had accidentally been put in that box instead.

Annoying, right? I’m with her on this – two failed trips to the video store? That sucks. Well, the first disc she had returned as faulty played perfectly well on our dvd player and, as a new release, had been renting every day for a few weeks with no other complaints. So, it didn’t work on HER machine, but that’s not actually our fault, we supplied a disc which works on everyone else’s. The wrong disc in the box – well, that was our MISTAKE.

Before I could address the situation, she loudly announced ‘Where I’m from, we have a game called baseball and the rules of that is ‘THREE STRIKES AND YOU’RE OUT’ – broken disc – STRIKE ONE. Wrong disc in box – STRIKE TWO….’

So she’s implying that after strike three, we will no longer have her custom. What she has not realised is that she is loudly and arrogantly SHOUTING at another human being in front of a shop full of people who are feeling rather awkward. To me, this is worse than the combination of unfortunate technical hitch and mistaken disc-in-box. So, I don’t want her custom. I own the shop, I don’t demand any respect for that as such, but I feel that I don’t deserve to be publicly shouted at and patronised on the basic human level that NOBODY deserves that.

So I tell her that I’ll swap the disc, give her the right one, but that’s it.

She demands a refund. I say no.

She points out that legally faulty goods must be refunded. I agree, produce the exact DVD she had rented and start it playing – faultlessly – on our £20 from Tesco piece-of-crap DVD Player. It is not faulty goods, it does not warrant a refund.

I’ve never lost my temper with a customer, always remained polite. If they’re polite to me, they get treated well. Had she come in and politely explained the situation, she would have got a hefty credit on her account, a profuse apology and – if she had requested politely – a full refund. But she used the situation as an opportunity to vent inappropriately and exercise the power that the corporate world has invested in her. That power is worthless in my shops. She left with nothing.

I checked her account. She had only rented a handful of times – including, it transpired, an unpaid heavily contested late fee. In all, her custom – which she thought so important to us – probably amounted to about a tenner.

She went home and stewed. Then phoned me back up to reinforce her feelings of upset. I only wish I could have recorded the conversation as it was, for me the vindication on my views of all of these matters. To paraphrase, here is what she said to me;

‘You know, the money isn’t even important to me – it’s a point of principle. I just wanted to hear you say ‘Madame, I apologise’, ‘Madame, I was in the wrong’ ‘Madame, I value your custom’.


That is just unfathomably ugly to me, it smacks of colonialism, even. Are shops the only place where these people can feel respected, valued and correct? Have people started to mistake these corporate platitudes – instilled not in any way out of genuine respect for the customer but merely to maximise profit – as an actual human entitlement to superiority?

I let her talk for a few minutes responding only a laconic ‘yep’ when she asked if I were still there, then said ‘If you want your £3.50, you can come back in for it’. ‘I WILL!’ she defiantly screeched.

She came back in and, wordlessly, I dropped the £3.50 on the counter with a bastard grin that said ‘you’re an idiot, take your money, fuck off, and don’t come back’. She grabbed it with a ‘fuck you and fuck this shop forever’ sneer and flounced out.

It was all very, very human.

Published in: on June 22, 2009 at 4:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

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