The Insane Waiter

Running wild on customers, chefs, owners and managers since 1997. I bring to you, The Insane Waiter. What do bring to your table? A crisp bottle of San Pellegrino ? Perhaps a lovely seared Sashimi Tuna? Start off with a wonderful bottle from Tuscany perhaps? Why I'll be more than happy to bring you your White Zinfandel and Chicken Caesar. No you can't order the mac and cheese off the kids menu and sorry no, we don't serve cheese sticks....

Monday, March 31, 2008

Top 5 reasons why “The Customer Is Always Right” is wrong


Top 5 reasons why “The Customer Is Always Right” is wrong

1: It makes employees unhappy

Gordon Bethune is a brash Texan (as is Herb Kelleher, coincidentally) who is best known for turning Continental Airlines around “From Worst to First,” a story told in his book of the same title from 1998. He wanted to make sure that both customers and employees liked the way Continental treated them, so he made it very clear that the maxim “the customer is always right” didn’t hold sway at Continental.

In conflicts between employees and unruly customers he would consistently side with his people. Here’s how he puts it:

When we run into customers that we can’t reel back in, our loyalty is with our employees. They have to put up with this stuff every day. Just because you buy a ticket does not give you the right to abuse our employees . . .

We run more than 3 million people through our books every month. One or two of those people are going to be unreasonable, demanding jerks. When it’s a choice between supporting your employees, who work with you every day and make your product what it is, or some irate jerk who demands a free ticket to Paris because you ran out of peanuts, whose side are you going to be on?

You can’t treat your employees like serfs. You have to value them . . . If they think that you won’t support them when a customer is out of line, even the smallest problem can cause resentment.

So Bethune trusts his people over unreasonable customers. What I like about this attitude is that it balances employees and customers, where the “always right” maxim squarely favors the customer - which is not a good idea, because, as Bethune says, it causes resentment among employees.

Of course there are plenty of examples of bad employees giving lousy customer service. But trying to solve this by declaring the customer “always right” is counter-productive.

2: It gives abrasive customers an unfair advantage

Using the slogan “The customer is always right” abusive customers can demand just about anything - they’re right by definition, aren’t they? This makes the employees’ job that much harder, when trying to rein them in.

Also, it means that abusive people get better treatment and conditions than nice people. That always seemed wrong to me, and it makes much more sense to be nice to the nice customers to keep them coming back.

3: Some customers are bad for business

Most businesses think that “the more customers the better”. But some customers are quite simply bad for business.

Danish IT service provider ServiceGruppen proudly tell this story:
One of our service technicians arrived at a customer’s site for a maintenance task, and to his great shock was treated very rudely by the customer.

When he’d finished the task and returned to the office, he told management about his experience. They promptly cancelled the customer’s contract.

Just like Kelleher dismissed the irate lady who kept complaining (but somehow also kept flying on Southwest), ServiceGruppen fired a bad customer. Note that it was not even a matter of a financial calculation - not a question of whether either company would make or lose money on that customer in the long run. It was a simple matter of respect and dignity and of treating their employees right.

4: It results in worse customer service

Rosenbluth International, a corporate travel agency, took it even further. CEO Hal Rosenbluth wrote an excellent book about their approach called Put The Customer Second - Put your people first and watch’em kick butt.

Rosenbluth argues that when you put the employees first, they put the customers first. Put employees first, and they will be happy at work. Employees who are happy at work give better customer service because:

They care more about other people, including customers

They have more energy

They are happy, meaning they are more fun to talk to and interact with

They are more motivated

On the other hand, when the company and management consistently side with customers instead of with employees, it sends a clear message that:

Employees are not valued

That treating employees fairly is not important

That employees have no right to respect from customers

That employees have to put up with everything from customers

When this attitude prevails, employees stop caring about service. At that point, real good service is almost impossible - the best customers can hope for is fake good service. You know the kind I mean: corteous on the surface only.

5: Some customers are just plain wrong

Herb Kelleher agrees, as this passage From Nuts! the excellent book about Southwest Airlines shows:

Herb Kelleher […] makes it clear that his employees come first — even if it means dismissing customers. But aren’t customers always right? “No, they are not,” Kelleher snaps. “And I think that’s one of the biggest betrayals of employees a boss can possibly commit. The customer is sometimes wrong. We don’t carry those sorts of customers. We write to them and say, ‘Fly somebody else. Don’t abuse our people.’”

If you still think that the customer is always right, read this story from Bethune’s book “From Worst to First”:

A Continental flight attendant once was offended by a passenger’s child wearing a hat with Nazi and KKK emblems on it. It was pretty offensive stuff, so the attendant went to the kid’s father and asked him to put away the hat. “No,” the guy said. “My kid can wear what he wants, and I don’t care who likes it.”

The flight attendant went into the cockpit and got the first officer, who explained to the passenger the FAA regulation that makes it a crime to interfere with the duties of a crew member. The hat was causing other passengers and the crew discomfort, and that interfered with the flight attendant’s duties. The guy better put away the hat.

He did, but he didn’t like it. He wrote many nasty letters. We made every effort to explain our policy and the federal air regulations, but he wasn’t hearing it. He even showed up in our executive suite to discuss the matter with me. I let him sit out there. I didn’t want to see him and I didn’t want to listen to him. He bought a ticket on our airplane, and that means we’ll take him where he wants to go. But if he’s going to be rude and offensive, he’s welcome to fly another airline.

The fact is that some customers are just plain wrong, that businesses are better of without them, and that managers siding with unreasonable customers over employees is a very bad idea, that results in worse customer service.

Top 5 reasons why “The Customer Is Always Right” is wrong


At 5:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would really appreciate it if you would make it a bit more obvious that this is not an original post. I see that there is a link to the original at the bottom of your post, but that's not the same as an attribution.

At 5:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.

At 11:36 PM , Anonymous SwillmistressWA said...

Thanks for that. People often ask me why I've had the same job for 10 years and it's because my boss is a lot like Kelleher and Bethune.

At 6:21 AM , Anonymous the_derminator said...

I used to work in a posh hotel in the UK. One of our biggest clients was holding a dinner for the board members which had gone on into the small hours. When the MD of the company tried to get a drink from the night porter, who was the only member of staf on duty, he got a bit pissy that he had to wait a whole 5 minutes for it because the guy was busy.

So he grabbed the porter and slammed him up against the wall and started kicking off at him. At this point, the GM of the hotel who was entertaining in the hotel that evening, walked up, grabbed the guy and threw him out of the hotel so he had to sleep in his car.

But it gets better - the next day the GM cancelled all their future bookings, including their Christmas party, which would have been a masive money spinner for the hotel. When the company tried to arrange for the guy to come in and apologise, he told him that he was banned from the hotel and if he turned up - for any reason - the police would be called.

Now that was a boss I never minded going the extra mile for.

At 12:33 PM , Anonymous lala said...

I once had customers at the counter of my food court restaurant who communicated with his wife by yelling at her across the food court. he said some things to my staff which were rude and he yelled out to his wife that we didn;t have the kind of effin' pizza she wanted. I stood there seething while he paid and carried his tray to his table. Then I opened the cash, took his money out and walked over to where he sat. I told him that I was giving him his money back, that I didn't want to see him at my restaurant again and that my staff didn't deserve the kind of treatment he gave. I wish I had more bosses who put the employee first but I guess that's why I'm out of the service industry now.

At 5:31 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some people make a living out of bitching just to see what they get free. Those are the ones that need a kick to the curb. Most people beilive if your working in this biz that your an idiot and that makes them better than you. You can almost tell when a cutomer gets kicked out of a place. The first thing they tell you I don't know why they treated me that way after all I was their best customer, and now they belong to us.

At 5:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Anon:
AT THE TOP it says,

Any more obvious and we'd be reading about you in the blog.

At 11:08 AM , Blogger S. said...

I completely agree. I have never waited tables, but I worked in customer service (sales) for a while, and I also served food in a cafeteria for 3 years. I was lucky enough to have bosses who put their employees before nasty customers, and who understood that the customer is *not* always right. I had a boss that was known for kicking out customers who humiliated or insulted the employees, because as he put it, "You are here to attend to the customers needs, but not to take insults in any form...the customer needs to be nice if he/she expects nice treatment."

Thankfully I'm out of there, I'm currently in medical school. I have to say, having crappy jobs was a great motivator to study. I hated being looked down on by the customers because they thought that since I was a cafeteria employee, I surely must be uneducated and stupid. Grr, it still makes me angry. I always try to treat people in customer service well, because I know what a difference it makes in an otherwise crappy job.

At 3:08 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the article, but I do find it unfortunate that the people espousing this philosophy are affiliated with airlines-- those who have recently been treating travelers with such appalling behaviour and competency level that a bill of rights had to be drafted and reports continue ad nauseam. Only today:

This is not to legitimise rude or unpleasant behaviour on the part of customers-- that's always wrong--- but that with mountains of luggage, canceled flights, and no one to help redirect passengers, these are the last people to go public with such a philosophy! Why couldn't it have been restaurateurs? There is makes sense!

At 7:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't agree more. Recently we had a table at our restaurant that was swearing at their server, being rude to him. The management finally asked the party to leave. They refused. Our Managers are such pussies they refused to do anything. We are a small chain, about 50 upscale restaurants across the country. These people abused everyone that came near them. Finally, the cops were called and showed up after the table refused to pay their bill. The cops met the party in the parking lot and our stupid manager didn't have them charged for not paying the $300 tab because he just didn't want to make a big deal of it. Thanks, you asshole. Now we all know it's okay for people to come in, abuse us, not pay and you wont do anything. I hope the company gets sued for forcing their employees to work under abusive conditions. Maybe that will teach them to do the right thing.

At 12:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey John--

I don't know if you got it from the "Thank you" that I posted immediately after The Insane Waiter changed the posting, but it wasn't always like that. IW was kind enough to quickly change the posting after I requested. Funny thing about the web, it's not stagnant. It changes. I know this is a difficult concept, but trust me: posts can be edited after-the-fact.

Insane Waiter: Thanks again for adding the credit. You did it smoothly and quickly.

At 2:40 AM , Blogger weare138 said...

Airline business is significantly different than restaurant business, though. If you're traveling a significant distance, flying is the only viable option, and there are a more limited number of airlines to choose from than restaurants to eat at. Airlines will (until technology in cars or some shit changes) always have a big enough customer base and profit margin that they can afford to not "serve" the 1% or so of the customers that are a-holes. At a restaurant you make a nickel on each dollar sold (and that's if there's no overtime or wasted food that day), and every discount, ounce of ranch dressing or wedge of lemon is a loss. You can't afford to turn away customers, even when rude; you need to kiss their asses just to stay afloat, especially if the owner of your restaurant doesn't own more than 3 locations.

I can see how this article would appeal to you, but it doesn't really apply...

At 4:32 AM , Anonymous clutterfish said...

weare138, you are so full of crap. I've worked in a total of sixteen restaurants, ranging from Cracker Barrel to top notch upscale dining establishments, over the better part of ten years. The customer is more often than not an idiot. Kissing the asses of the ones stupid enough to be rude to the people who handle the food and drink they are about to put into their mouths, is base cowardly, ignorance. There is no industry where dumping on your employees, the people who are the backbone of any business, is EVER an acceptable option.

Don't be such a pansy.

At 11:53 AM , Blogger weare138 said...

Whoa whoa are you saying that "kissing the asses of the idiots" is ignorance, or that being disrespectful of "people who handle your food" is the ignorance?

And I wouldn't say "the customer is more often than not an idiot". Yeah, they're prone to saying stupid shit like "um what salad dressings/soft drinks" do you have, when they're printed right in front of them, or not saying what size of something they want when giving such information is required to putting in an order, or they'll say "Can I have regular non-buttery avocado?" because the menu described avocado as "buttery", but I'd say 90% of the dumb shit the average customer utters is completely forgivable because chances are they don't come to a restaurant (or maybe even restaurants in general) often enough to know what's going to really set off a server.

Just because people are making demands of you and haven't figured out that the simple (to them) things they're asking for are pissing you off doesn't mean they're dumb, and my defending of these people doesn't mean I'm a proponent of disrespecting the people I work with. People more often than not just want to have a good time and interaction with the server isn't one of their top priorities, and for whatever reason, I really rarely have rude, ignorant customers.

You got entirely too angry at a nice objective statement I made, weirdo.

At 12:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comment 5/23/08, way later: when I worked in the service industry (car repair: an industry that customers fear and therefore do not trust) our company sent us to a lot of customer service training. Best line: The customer is NOT always right, but the customer is still the customer. You don't have to give in to bullying, but you do have to provide the service you are in business to provide. Being nice generally encourages customers to be nice. Management needs to back up the employees in any business when the customer is unreasonable.

Some people are not just idiots, they are actively hostile and get off on it. Without going into psychology, they take out their anger on people that they don't believe will defend themselves. They don't apply the Golden Rule. I had a boyfriend like that once; he always tipped 20% and thought that entitled him to glare at and snipe at the waiters. I read once that how people treat waiters reflects their real true selves. Same with anyone they encounter who is providing them a service. They equate service with servile. They need an attitude adjustment. Since that is beyond the server's scope, the server (waiter, flight attendant, customer service person) needs to know that their management will back them up.

At 11:33 PM , Anonymous Caliconn said...

Love the list man. It works on so many levels for most, and yet for me it works on none. "The customer is always right." is taken to the extreme in the casino hotel business, you wouldn't beleive the shit I have to put up with. You waiters think you have it bad? Try working in a job where you have to put up with as much shit for zero tips...lucky bastards

At 11:47 PM , Anonymous Caliconn said...

wow, after reading that again i have to say my comment was really pompous, sorry ya'll its been a long day, plus i caught the worst waitress in history today at chili's.


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