Is the Customer Really Always Right?


Small business consultant Holly Howard has helped over 30 businesses and entrepreneurs in Brooklyn to map out their vision and achieve their goals.

Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books.

Dear Holly,

I’m a stylist who’s a partner in an up and coming fashion label.  We’ve had some moderate success and the future looks bright.  I’m having somewhat of a problem when it comes to customer service and complaints.  My partner and I tend to have differing attitudes about how requests and feedback should be handled.  I tend to be overly accommodating and go with the old motto “the customer is always right”, while my partner tends to pull more of an attitude with them and disregard their complaints.   

Do you have any advice on best practices when it comes to customer service?  I’m sure it’s not a one size fits all across every industry, but we have to come to an agreement on how we handle these things or else we’re going to lose our following.  


Accommodating the Clients

Dear Accommodating,

I used to dread the phrase “the customer is always right” because more often than not, they aren’t “right”.   They’re just not happy.  So I don’t encourage business owners to adopt that philosophy because it’s the employees on the front line who are put in the position of executing this.   The other extreme is how you mentioned your partner would handle things, to pull an attitude and ignore what the customer is offering you as far as feedback.  That’s probably the worst thing you can do in business.  I have some clients say that they built their own business so it’s their right to give the customer any attitude they choose.  But today’s market is way too competitive to adopt a bad attitude.

What I believe is missing in most customer service is a real ability to listen to what’s being said, to have empathy for the customer, and finally to communicate free from emotional influence.   We usually get all hot and bothered when someone complains because we take it as a personal offense rather than seeing it as objective feedback.  One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a business owner is to let your emotions seep into your communication.  Remember, the customer isn’t always right, but they’re always important.

A good way to remove emotion is to continually welcome and strongly encourage feedback from your customers.  It’s never good to teach employees to assume the customer is right, but always teach them how to be good listeners and even better communicators.  It doesn’t even necessarily matter why the customer isn’t happy with your product, what matters most to them is that you acknowledge their frustration.  Often customers are upset about things that are far beyond your control, but why bother proving a point when you could quickly resolve the issue and retain good faith?

The specific steps to take for your customer service practices can vary, but they should always include:  listen, repeat back to them what they tell you, acknowledge their frustration or inconvenience – which is different from taking responsibility for it – and offer a solution.  Don’t fixate on the details or psychoanalyze why they are taking their frustration out on you, just acknowledge their concerns and move forward.

Keep it simple and consistent and your customer service will be a breeze for everyone in the company and the happier your customers, the more successful your business.

Good luck!


Want valuable insights into how to grow your business? Email Holly to set up a time to talk at or to ask a question for the next Ask Holly How. Join the wait list for her next business development program here.

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