The Company is Sometimes Wrong

16 Feb 2022

The bane of every retail worker’s existence is the old saying, “the customer is always right.” That is, the idea that the customer is to be catered to and not to be made a fool of. Interacting with basic courtesy and honesty is a must but for many who directly interact with customers, whether they work in retail or are small business owners themselves, the expectation goes beyond that. The phrase is often taken literally to mean that if the customer says two plus two equals five then so it is! That every customer is empowered to be a petty tyrant if that pleases them. With changing attitudes this overly customer-centric culture may well go the way of the non-avian dinosaurs. This would be a good development but it would also be a shame if we forgot the lessons that led to this phrase in the first place.

It may have originated in a time when the norm for advertisement was adversarial. When sellers were expected to loudly, and not necessarily honestly, hawk their wares at their customers. Like most people born in the latter half of the 20th century, I get my idea of what salespeople from this time were like from popular entertainment lampooning them. Cartoons have me believe that snake oil salesmen would stand at corners selling downright dangerous (and hilarious) items with hard sell tactics. Okay, maybe these are exaggerations, but against the backdrop of these dishonest tactics, “the customer is always right” must have been an important evolution.

Curious about the origins of the phrase as this subject often comes up on social media and in conversations I have with people, I looked into it. I hoped to find a definitive original passage in a text. What I found was a number of sources and no definitive first attestation, as often the case with popular phrases. Forbes had an article in 2018 about the phrase and related ideas, describing the background environment it arose from:

Selfridge, who founded the department store Selfridges in the U.K.; Wanamaker, who opened the first department store in Philadelphia; and Marshall Field, owner of the store Marshall Field and Company in Chicago, owe much of their careers to respecting customers. It’s unclear who was actually the first person to coin the phrase, but it’s definitely an idea they all followed and used to run their businesses. They didn’t actually intend the phrase to mean that the customer was in the right in every situation. Instead, it was a signal that customers were special. Staff were instructed to treat customers as if they were always right, even if it was obvious they weren’t. The change in mindset was a radical shift to how customers were used to being treated, and people flocked to these department stores.

One rumor I’ve seen but couldn’t verify is that the original phrase was actually “the customer is always right in matters of taste.” I could not verify that this was the original formulation, and the aforementioned Forbes article never mentions it, but lack of pedigree doesn’t invalidate the sentiment.

The Customer Is Always Right… in Matters of Taste

Adding the matters of taste qualifier can go a long way, whether such clarification was originally included. It has important implications for contract development and user interface design. For the latter, we see many products having light and dark modes or even multiple color schemes (including Visual Studio Code, where I type up my blog posts). For the former, it links up nicely with my when in Rome policy with regards to coding style. If a client wants to do something that is simply a bad idea technologically, it’s important to say as much. This is where a literal interpretation of “the customer is always right” would actually run counter to kindness to the customer. Honesty is important, even if it means contradicting someone. But then there are decisions for which there are multiple valid answers, such as matters of coding style. That is where I would say, the client is right in matters of taste. If they want IBM-style C++, my personal distaste of said is irrelevant and they’re completely right to want any new code to fit with the existing style.

But I think we can do better than adding this clarification by inverting the original formulation. My job is to give the customer the best information I have, even if it contradicts what they believe. However, epistemic humility dictates that I always consider the possibility that I’m wrong. So instead of saying the customer is always right, we can invert and say the consultant or the company is sometimes wrong. This has implications in both user interface design and in customer or client relations.

The Company is Sometimes Wrong

Even if you are paid to be an expert and your client is not an expert, chances are they know something about the landscape that you don’t. For one, they understand their requirements, their needs. As much time as you spent studying their requirements, there are still things about it you don’t know that they do. Could be something about the nature of their end-users or something about which systems need to be interacted with. As much experience as you might have, there’s always something new to learn. And so, you tell the client what you know and allow for the possibility that you are mistaken and are missing key information.

The implications for user interface design are also great. A good example is an annoyance I often have with mobile apps. Most mobile apps these days interact with servers. Sometimes they are unable to communicate with said servers. Too many mobile apps, infuriatingly, assume any communication issues must be with the end-user’s connection. In fact, I mostly only encounter errors when the company’s servers are down due to an outage with Amazon or another server provider. Despite the issue being on their end, they confidently assure me that I just need to “move to a place with a better signal” to fix the issue. Their error messages need to account for the fact that they don’t know and can’t know ahead of time the cause for any such issues.

Oft-repeated cliches are no substitute for thoughtful decision-making. Any idea that could fit on a bumper sticker could well be misconstrued or over-applied. The Customer is Always Right was originally a slogan meant to reassure customers not instruction for managers, and certainly not meant literally. But to that end, I propose this new inversion. Reassure clients and end-users that you truly value their input. It can go a long way in establishing mutual respect.