Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Customer is Not Always Right

          I debated with myself quite a bit over the past few days as to whether or not I should make this the topic of my next blog entry. After all, there have been numerous cases of employees being fired or punished over things they say or post on social media, completely unrelated to work and on their free time. In my case, this piece should straddle an even thinner line insofar as, technically speaking, this is work-related as it reflects an attitude I have, and have always had, about working. But again, I'm writing this on my free time and posting it on an outlet unrelated to my present employer. The assumption that one still has to adhere to every facet of company standards and conduct when they are not on the clock, or when they are in the comfort of their own private dwelling, blurs the line between employment and slavery. That said, I don't imagine this to be a difficulty for me insofar as I no longer work in the retail outlets of my present employer, so the customer/employee dynamic doesn't apply to me in the same way as it did, say, two years ago. Additionally, my present employer actually has a pretty good track record of siding with, and caring for, its employees, at least, when compared to many other similar companies. By the end of this piece, it is my hope that at least one person realizes the folly in perpetuating this silly notion that "the customer is always right" and that, in the off-chance that this piece is brought to the attention of the higher-ups at my company, that they value the freedom of expression over making an extra buck by catering to the whims of an entitled consumer.
          The idea that "the customer is always right" is one that virtually all businesses in America have operated on as far back as I can remember, almost to the point of becoming a mantra for American capitalism and consumerism, alongside Reaganomics and sweatshops in other countries (Las Maquiladoras de Tijuana will attest to this, right across the border from my native San Diego) [1]. Admittedly, it is a principle that has generated several points of conflict for me over the years as I jumped from retail or restaurant job to retail or restaurant job, only recently receiving a slight reprieve from it in the form of a different work environment, and it remains a principle that I still don't understand. At its heart, the principle mandates that, in the event of any kind of disagreement or confusion between business and consumer, the default position that the business should take is that the source of the error or confusion is on them, and that the consumer needs to be acknowledged or compensated accordingly, "within reason", of course, and I put that phrase within quotations deliberately. If the customer fails to read the menu board at a restaurant and expects a cup of coffee to be $1.00 when it is actually posted to be $1.50 or $2.00, but then questions the inconsistency in the pricing, the employees are expected to make the cup of coffee $1.00 under this principle. This is not to say that there aren't times when a business really is the source of any kind of confusion or disagreement - an employee can accidentally charge a customer for the wrong size cup of coffee, and it is certainly reasonable for the customer to ask for a refund of the difference - but the idea that businesses should cater to every request, no matter how ridiculous, is perhaps one of the things that is wrong with American consumerism. There are two primary reasons that I will discuss here as to why this idea that "the customer is always right" is a poor principle for businesses to operate on, and why consumers should stop contributing to the continued existence of this principle by actually believing that they are, in fact, right. First, the notion that "the customer is always" right doesn't seem to be in the better interest of the business, and, second, the notion that "the customer is always right", many times, compromises the well-being and integrity of employees.
          There are plenty of hypothetical situations that illustrate how a customer's requests can be harmful to a business. A man approaches the counter at a cafe, orders a cup of coffee, and then asks for all the money in the safe. A woman threatens to have a gourmet Italian restaurant closed over the phone because the restaurant doesn't deliver. A man at a grocery store starts harassing other customers because of their religious or political views, and when asked to leave, threatens to sue the grocery store. Clearly, there is a lot at stake for the business in each of these cases - giving away all of the business' money, closing down, or being sued are certainly not in the business' better interests. However, if we are to adhere to the tenant that "the customer is always right", we are expected to cater to these people. The gourmet Italian restaurant, for example, despite the fact that they have never delivered before, is to find a way to deliver to this particular customer, because, after all, she is "right", and her whims need to be catered to. The end result would likely manifest itself as something along the lines of that poor girl on the phone having to get in her car and drive to this customer's house, an area that she has never been to before.
          Of course, the hypothetical nature of the above scenarios allows for them to be dismissed as silly and unrealistic. "Surely", a proponent of the idea that "the customer is always right" might argue, "there actually aren't situations where the customer is abusing the principle to such a degree, though it may seem as if it is theoretically possible based on the above hypotheticals. The idea behind the notion that 'the customer is always right' is that, when discrepancies arise between, like when a customer is given the wrong size cup of coffee or purchases a defective product, the customer is entitled to a refund and, perhaps, a replacement." I am sure most people would support these latter scenarios; if one were to buy a faulty computer from an electronics store, then one should be able to return it and get a replacement. But the mindset that customers aren't abusing the principle is also blindly optimistic. Consider the piece from Emily Co on PopSugar, where she advocates going to one's local Starbucks and doing such things as paying for just a couple shots of espresso over ice, as opposed to paying for a latte, but then proceeding to the condiment bar and then emptying the entire carafe of milk into the cup to create a latte [2]. It seems readily apparent that such a move is abusing the generosity of not just Starbucks, but any coffee shop that leaves carafes on their condiment bar for customers to simply add a little of milk to their coffee. And, as a former coffee shop employee, I can attest that this is a very real, not hypothetical, scenario. But, again, there is very little that employees can do about it; it would be futile for an employee to try and confront the customer in question because, after all, "the customer is always right". (Now this is not to say that Starbucks has the best pricing for their drinks, but it should also be noted that one way that coffee shops indirectly respond to the phenomenon that Ms. Co is advocating is to raise prices). Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this phenomenon is that customers feel that they have a right to do this. Alexander Kjerulf of the Huffington Post, for example, reminds us of a particular customer of Southwest Airlines that felt like she had the right to dictate their boarding process and flight procedures (because, may I remind you, "the customer is always right") without giving pause to the prospect that, perhaps, Southwest Airlines was doing it that way for a reason [3]. In contrast to the hypothetical scenarios of the previous paragraph, these situations with Starbucks and Southwest are only two of the mountain of situations in which the principle that "the customer is always right" is invoked to justify a customer's abusive behavior, even when it works against the interests of the business itself.
          The notion that "the customer is always right" also works against the well-being of employees. As the New York Daily News reminds us, there was the case from 2013 in which a Florida woman walks into a Dunkin Donuts and goes on a tirade against the employees, supposedly for not being given a receipt from the previous night [4]. The woman video tapes the whole ordeal in an attempt to make herself out to be some kind of consumer advocate, or bring to light the "injustice" that she experienced at the hands of Dunkin Donuts employees, but, instead, the video shows the woman shouting racial slurs and physical threats at the employees, clearly stepping outside of the arena of disgruntled customer and into the realm of aggressor. And as the Internet, and Dunkin Donuts, are quick to point out, the employees remain calm during the whole ordeal, with the primary employee that the woman is dealing with giving her whatever she wants for free. Again, the employee is lauded for remaining calm during and giving this woman whatever she wants during this whole ordeal, as he should be. That said, it seems as if most people would say that what this woman is doing is nothing short of harassment and aggression, as evidenced by the quick and acute backlash she immediately received when this video was posted on the Internet. And after watching her behavior in the video, it seems as if the employees had sufficient grounds to ask the woman to leave and call the police rather than stand such harassment. But, again, "the customer is always right", and, instead of having the problem removed from the situation, businesses and employees are expected to tolerate abuse. And, in addition to the previous scenario, once more hearkening back to my time working as a barista, virtually all of the situations in this YouTube video [5] are accurate and happened on a daily basis (perhaps not all at the same time), and the barista's reaction at the end of the video pretty much sums up how having to cater to this makes one feel at the end of a shift.
          Given that this idea of "the customer is always right" works against the interests of a business and the well-being of employees, perhaps we should do away with it altogether. It should be noted that this is not meant to justify anything like the behavior of the employee in this video [6], but I am confident in suggesting that the occurrences in [6] don't happen nearly as often as those of [5] and [4]. The next logical question then becomes "how, then, are discrepancies between customers and businesses to be handled?" I believe the answer to this question is rather simple, but its implementation would prove to be daunting. Quite frankly, and as one would expect from a philosopher, the side whose view is true, or is more reasonable, should be the one that is catered to. It is reasonable for a customer to ask for a receipt if he didn't get one with his transaction, it is not reasonable for a customer to ask for a discount or a free drink because he or she had to wait in line, where waiting in line is more or less a fact of life. Accordingly, since giving a customer a discount simply because he or she didn't like waiting in line is unreasonable, an employee or a business has no obligation to honor that request. Again, this approach sounds simple enough, but its implementation is what renders it a lofty endeavor. Call me cynical or nihilistic, but asking employees, or business owners, to evaluate for themselves what the most reasonable course of action is puts far too much responsibility on their heads, responsibility far above their pay grade. As evidenced by the mountain of various social issues plaguing the US right now, as well as the attitudes of many voters, average citizens can't be trusted to make an informed decision, which is required if we were to abandon the idea that "the customer is always right". This leaves with a kind of "catch-22", since the idea that "the customer is always right", as the above paragraphs illustrate, is a horrible idea.
          That said, I would rather risk letting employees and businesses assess situation themselves as opposed to continuing the notion that "the customer is always right". I can't remember the last time that I found myself in a disagreement with a business, and, from experience, I also find that those that do end up in disagreements with a business are, most of the time, very much like the cartoon customer in [5]: rich, entitled, self-important, thinking that they are from a higher rung of society. Perhaps, if customers made reasonable requests, as opposed to being high-maintenance, then any disagreements could be avoided altogether. Or perhaps this is merely a symptom of a larger social phenemenon; after all, as Bernie Sanders points out, the American middle class is becoming more and more polarized, with the gap between higher-income workers and lower-income workers widening [7], and may not be a coincidence that those that feel inclined to preserve this principle that "the customer is always right" are those towards the upper tiers of the middle-class.
          More can certainly be said about this notion that "the customer is always right", and I think it may prove to be an interesting social experiment to try and correlate it with the income disparities in the US right now, as I hinted at in the previous paragraph. But I will save that endeavor for another time. For now, I merely wanted to introduce a challenge to the idea, an idea that is so deeply rooted in American consumerism, but at the same time seems like an extremely poor principle to operate on. I will most likely return to this challenge in the future, but I have at least expressed a couple of ways in which it is a bad idea.

          Now, as a quick point of bookkeeping, I feel as if I should give a brief overview of my blogging schedule for the rest of the year, so readers know what to expect. The holiday season is upon us, and, as most people are during this time of year, I am extremely busy between work, shopping, travel, and so on. My next entry in the blog after this one will likely be a review of The Force Awakens, and that obviously won't be until after its release next month. I also wouldn't be surprised if that were my only entry for December, though I may try to fit another one in. I have a tentative schedule for pieces after that (subject to change, of course), but, other than The Force Awakens, I expect to get back in to the full swing of things again after the new year. In the meantime, I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving and a wonderful holiday season.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5qMRZNdlO
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruq9rEKiEks

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