The Customer Is Always Right

Categories: Customer

Back in 1909, so the story goes, Harry Gordon Selfridge coined the seller’s well-worn phrase “the customer is always right”. Flash forward more than a century and that expression is long due for retirement. The sales industry has changed. Buying (and selling) is fundamentally altered. Customers aren’t just looking for “yes” people. They want an ally with insights they can rely on. In fact, we now have an entire sales methodology that is based on disrupting the very notion that the customer is always right.

So what is the take-home message? Are we saying that the customer is wrong?

Of course not — mostly.

We can think about it like this: the customer can sometimes be wrong in what they think; they are never wrong in what they feel.

Let’s look at an example. Say a SaaS customer is on the phone with their customer success contact. The customer says:

“Look, I’m not happy about the way this contract is going.

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We’re not seeing the results we expected. I don’t feel we’re getting the support we were promised. At the moment, we’re not planning to renew.”

The customer success person might know that the reason the results aren’t as expected is that the onboarding program wasn’t carried out as planned or that the hardware can’t keep up with the software. The poor results could be down to any number of justifiable and explainable factors. Effectively, the customer success contact knows that the customer is wrong to blame the provider for the poor results.

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But he or she cannot tell the customer that they are wrong to be unhappy. They can point out where improvements could be made on the customer side and how the provider can support those improvements on their end — in short, they can hope to change how the customer feels, but they cannot rewrite the customer’s feelings.

Have you ever had someone try to tell you how to feel? It’s annoying, to say the least. So when it comes to feelings, the customer is, in fact, always right. And since it is also felt that make or break relationships, it’s feelings that we have to work with.

Thankfully, feelings are not as binary as right and wrong, or even good and bad. There’s a whole range of emotions for us to work with and build on to forge strong customer relationships. Let’s have a look at a few of the most obvious emotions and see how we, as sellers, can try to work with them.


In this business, trust is the most obvious emotion in which we trade. We’re constantly fighting to overcome a lack of trust, trying to earn trust, and attempting to build a reputation that automatically generates trust. There are copious articles available relating to how we, as salespeople, can build trust through thought leadership content and consultative selling. There are so many articles, in fact, that we’ve reached a point where it feels as though trust is more an equation than emotion.

But we’d do well to remember that for all those column inches, trust is still just a feeling and it can still come down to instinct. Presuming you’ve done all the big work on becoming a voice worth listening to, let’s think about some of the smaller stuff:

Tone: Authoritative but approachable. Friendly but not like you’re trying too hard. Aim for a tone that makes room for discussion or you risk alienating your audience.

Eye contact: A tough one to get just right. Too much can be weird. Not enough can be weirder. Experts suggest you balance it out by aiming for more eye contact when you’re listening and less when you’re speaking.

Online presence: How you interact with others online says a lot about you as a person. Connections on LinkedIn may be notified of your activities, so make sure that you are consistent with your communications across the board and keep all your professional accounts just that — professional.


Everyone loves a happy customer. They spend more money, they are great advocates and they make good case studies.

Making your customers happy doesn’t necessarily mean giving them everything they want — that’s not always possible. In my experience, great customer experience comes down to managing expectations and making sure you deliver on them — or above and beyond them if you can.

This process starts with your marketing content and goes all the way through the buying journey, ending with customer success. Let’s go back to the earlier example of the unhappy SaaS customer. That customer had certain expectations that were not being met. Why was that? Could it be that at some point the customer was misinformed about the level of effort required from them to make a success of the software?

There’s no doubt it’s tempting to advertise your product as a miracle cure, but such a thing simply does not exist. It’s far better to be upfront from the start — to say that the results a customer will achieve will depend upon their level of use and how much time and effort they put into making it a success.

Also, do not be afraid of happy customers. Don’t be so afraid of doing something to make them unhappy that you don’t do everything you ought to do. Happy customers should be utilised! Ask for referrals. Send them offers to share with their friends and colleagues, with a little side bonus to keep for themselves. Put out content that they will want to share. Make the most of them — if they really are happy, they won’t mind.


Sorry to bring you down, but at some point, we all deal with disappointed customers. Whether they were let down by you or by someone else, you’re going to have to work hard to win back their trust. Winning a deal from a trust deficit (as opposed to trust zero) is much harder. You have to overcome a range of negative emotions — scepticism, perhaps some bitterness, and probably anger or even hurt.

If it wasn’t you or your company that messed up, then you get to differentiate yourself. It’s a chance to showcase all your strengths and USPs and to address how you would have handled the situation that went wrong. If it was your or your company’s mistake, though, how do you deal with that?

The first thing to do is a proper post mortem — with the customer if you can — to identify what went wrong. Did you over promise, under deliver? Was there some technical slip-up? Human error? Or is the failure more the customer’s responsibility than yours?

Running this diagnostic together with the customer should enable you to both come to the same conclusions, which makes for a better starting off point if there’s a chance to recover the relationship. For this kind of discussion, meeting face to face is far preferable to any other form of communication, though video chat is a good alternative if an in-person meeting isn’t possible.

If it’s your mistake, you have to own it — and not just take responsibility but also demonstrate all the ways you are working to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If it’s theirs, well, in the interests of being a good ally, you have to look for your part in that, too. Perhaps you could have been clearer about proper use or expected results. Perhaps you could have kept a closer eye on the account to see whether things were progressing as expected. Taking responsibility for whatever part you played in the end result will help the customer feel that you are a partner in this — and help to build trust as you try to repair the relationship.

There are so many more emotions that come into play in the buying process and in the — hopefully much longer — customer experience. Positive, negative; all can impact the choices we make and the relationships we build, whether we’re buying or selling. The important thing, for both salespeople and customer success, is that we listen, acknowledge and respect the feelings of our customers so that whatever reaction you respond with is in everyone’s best interests. 

Works cited

  1. Bell, D. (2017). The customer is not always right: how to manage difficult situations effectively. Training Journal, 12-15. Retrieved from
  2. Brooks, L. (2019). The customer isn't always right: when it's time to fire a client. Inc. Retrieved from
  3. Cialdini, R. (2016). Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade. Simon and Schuster.
  4. Dixon, M., Freeman, K., & Toman, N. (2010). Stop trying to delight your customers. Harvard Business Review, 88(7/8), 116-122. Retrieved from
  5. Grant, A. (2013). The customer is not always right: haggling, reputation, and social norms. Strategic Management Journal, 34(5), 487-497. doi: 10.1002/smj.2039
  6. Martin, D. (2014). The customer is always right: why this is no longer true. American Express Open Forum. Retrieved from
  7. Phipps, J. (2018). The customer is always right: does it still hold true today? The Guardian. Retrieved from
  8. Rao, R. (2013). When the customer is (not) right. Forbes. Retrieved from
  9. Solis, B. (2019). Why the customer is not always right and what to do about it. Brian Solis. Retrieved from
  10. Tybout, A. M., & Calkins, T. (2005). Kellogg on marketing. John Wiley & Sons.
Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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The Customer Is Always Right. (2024, Feb 19). Retrieved from

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