When The Customer Is Totally Wrong

Fast food in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Don't yell at him! Image via Wikipedia

Loved this rant in The New York Times:

Let’s face it, folks. The customer is not always right. In fact, some are just plain old abusive, cheap and crass. I say this not as a salesman but as a dyed-in-the-wool middle-class consumer.

I’m waiting in line at a fast-food restaurant while a coupon fight goes on in front of me, delaying me from my sweet, sweet weekly communion with a Southern Style Chicken Biscuit. No, the coupon does not say that you are entitled to a free iced latte. You show it to me as if I’m your lawyer, and it states plainly, “A free cup of coffee.” And, no, they are not the same thing.

Do you read? Do you think complaining loudly in front of others and belittling the teenage cashier is going to improve your situation? Why do you need a manager to come out and tell you what you already know, that you’re wrong?

I’m finishing my retail memoir this week and payback is a bitch — I’ve got a whole chapter devoted to the worst customers I endured in my time behind the register. I had a hit parade of the top five and it took some doing to make it into my short list. The champion was the woman my age who whined that I was being hostile.

I told her her she really had no idea what hostile really looks like — and quit two weeks later.

I think things are simply getting worse and worse. We live in a time of such staggering income inequality that some shoppers, people who have an entire army of the docile at their beck and call, are convinced that everyone, everywhere is their personal servant. I had customers (women were the worst, always!) demand I watch their purse while they walked away and hold down their T-shirt while they removed a sweater. What are you — three?

So I completely identified with this interview from The New York Times with the owners of Great Lake, a popular pizza house in Chicago:

Q. In online reviews, some customers have complained about rudeness or arrogance. Where do you think that perception comes from?

Mr. Lessins: I think that perception of arrogance has to do with the sense of entitlement and a lack of respect for someone wanting to do their job. We’re just trying to do the job the best we can. We’re trying to provide a quality experience for everyone who comes in. In the food service business, it’s assumed that the customers have a set of God-given birthrights when they come into an establishment. It’s like they’ve been wronged in a lot of parts of their lives, and this is their chance to even the score.

What’s the worst of this you’ve ever heard? Were you serving — or being served?

Did you say or do anything in response?

35 thoughts on “When The Customer Is Totally Wrong

  1. ebizjoey

    Little off target, but it is amazing to me that we still have a jury system of our peers when I see the things that pass for just “everyday” if you know what I mean!

  2. davegeenens

    You are right! Many of us grew up hearing, “The customer is always right.” Nothing could be further from the truth, though they are the customer; deserving of our attention, our expertise, our service, and the presumption of our favor . . . until they take advantage of these things.

    To many customers, their abuse of servers (used generically for those who are paid to serve others, even if from behind the register) feeds a power need and is buttressed by arrogance and ego; two of the ugliest traits of humankind.

    Most of my experience is in contract negotiations when the other party is entirely self-interested, they are the customer, but they refuse to listen to any semblance of reasonable expectations for us to profit, either qualitatively or quantitatively. In these situations, we fire the customer . . . and these are the words we use!

    Sales people often assume the customer is always right and they certainly behave that way. Too often they sell a piece of business for the commission that is not good for the enterprise and argue on behalf of the customer. Alignment of compensation to enterprise goals is another subject . . .

    Start with your best service, and if the customer takes advantage . . . fire them!

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    Dave, thanks. I was always shocked (why?) when customers were so stunningly rude and entitled. I realized that some people simply parade through their live and our job is to wave and bow. Oh. They get SO annoyed when you fail to recognize this.

    Greg, I agree there are ways to handle horrible customers; in my retail job (one major reason I quit) we were often left hung out to dry. Managers need to *manage* and not allow front-line associates or waitstaff to be beaten up for amusement. That means managing customers as well.

    I was in a Starbucks in Harlem about 2 months ago when a customer was a total a—hole. Really really rude to everyone. I was impressed to see one of the associates ask him politely to move — then whipped out his cellphone to call 911, which he was officially empowered to do. That sends a powerful message to nasty customers, those who might emulate them — and those cowed by them, whether other clients or staff.

  4. geekysarah

    My mother used to tell me when I got to dating age that you could tell a lot about the person you’re dating by how the treat the “help” as she called them. I think she had a good point, and as someone who has been on the receiving end, it’s a true statement.

    I will second your thoughts about some women shoppers. I used to work at a music store which rents out musical instruments for kids starting elementary school band or orchestra. I remember a few Mom-zillas, ‘course there were always really nice people too (loved the 60+ year old piano teachers, they were 99% nice ladies).

    My most memorable Mom-zilla was a woman who wanted perfection for her child’s first instrumental experience. I can’t blame her for that certainly, but I always question the sanity of the parent who insists on renting a brand-new violin to a 9 year old, just to “try.” It was a pain to get the instrument she wanted for her daughter, one had too red of a finish, another had a bow that had one hair on the bow out of place…finally I found her one, got it rented and she left. Next week she comes back, slams the case on my desk and insists that I did something to the finish, because it had gone bad. I opened it up, looked at the instrument and saw a discolored spot near the chin-rest, with a pattern I had seen before. I looked at the daughter and asked her how her 7-Up tasted, and how she probably shouldn’t drink it right by her violin. Oh you would’ve thought I had suggested that her daughter was a meth dealer the way that woman exploded at me. Thank God my manager had a titanium backbone, and didn’t seem too fazed by some of the comments and wonderful phrases that got thrown our way. My manager ended up voiding her contract and the mom stalk out with her confused daughter.

    I do have some happy customers though, like the piano teacher who had come from Yokohama just a year before I started working there, so I became her go-to person for ordering, and I helped her with the contract when her daughter started flute. Those kinds of people would always brighten my day, and they made my time working retail very happy.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    I talk about this rollercoaster in my book — when customers are great, they are so much fun. I loved some of them. But the nasty ones, for me, were finally too toxic. I would only work front-line retail again if their management were much clearer about when customers are over the line.

    The job is hard and tiring enough and it’s abusive to push people around emotionally.

  6. john

    What I find interesting is how anyone can confuse someone who is essentially trying to serve them with a servant. It doesn’t matter whether you spend 5 bucks for a burger or $50 bucks on a loud Hawaiian shirt, that transaction does not come with the right to treat another person like shit, but some people do. It’s simply bad manners no matter what the size of the transactions is. If a given business wants to cater to assholes that is their prerogative, but managers have every right to teach their customers a little respect when a line is crossed. Especially, in the check out line.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    What happens when they’re spending $500 or $5,000?
    Does the same principle apply when your (nasty) customer might drop $5,000 or $10,000 in a month, peanuts to some? I say yes, but I’m not a store manager.

    I’ll be posting soon a report that shows — no huge surprise — that wealthy families (hell, merely affluent) with $150K a year incomes are the ones now primarily spending…so retailers will kowtow to whomever’s opening their wallets.

    I agree with you, clearly. But I don’t see this pattern changing soon, and I expect it will actually worsen. Retailers already have 100% staff turnover a year (wonder why) so they have little urge to change.

  8. inmyhumbleopinion

    I agree with you totally as it relates to face-to-face retail. But I will tell you that I find most of the telephone based customer service reps at banks, the phone company, and credit card companies–to name several– pure frustration.

    First, they put you through a bewildering maze of voicemail hell in which 97% of the time the options they give you are not what you need, and yes, after the sixth level of such screening and you finally get a human being on the phone they ask you AGAIN for your account number which you had already entered at level one of this special brand of Dante’s Inferno. (Then why did I waste my time entering it the first time if you’re only going to ask me again?)This isn’t service; it’s cattle herding.

    So, yes, I guess you could say that I’m generally a bit on edge by the time the poor rep gets on the line. I try not to let the frustration show, but they are not often empowered to solve problems, merely re-state corporate policies.

    And don’t get me started on outsourced customer service based in other countries. That may help the company’s bottom line, but the language barrier is so difficult, it takes twice as long to complete the customer’s transaction because of a failure to communicate.

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    imho, yes. Of course both of these are isanity. The challenge of face-to-face is that whatever someone says or does to you is happening in your personal space and can be really overwhelming. I know those phone reps are monitored, so they may not have the chance to hang up on someone crazed….I admit, I have been that person, once having had to call…5? times to even get someone sensible to speak to me.

    It’s ironic (polite word) that the economy is so premised on our spending $$$ — and we’re so typically treated like crap by the companies who say they need our business.

  10. This goes back to that whole sense of entitlement thing I referred to before. It’s like a disease that’s taking over the world, mostly the United States, like the plague. People think they’re owed something, and by the gods, they’re going to get it come hell or high water. They think that when they walk into a restaurant they should be given 5-star service, be it a Little Caesars or Le Bernardin. They forget that the people serving them are -people- and turn them instead into maids and servants, beneath their own stature, and that’s where they remain. Oh, and they certainly don’t like it when their snotty attitudes are given back to them, even if just to show them an example of how crappy they’re treating someone else.

    I didn’t make it long as a waitress because I refused to bow and scrape and be treated like dirt because the customer is most certainly not always right. I tip well now, probably too well, because I know what it’s like to be treated poorly, trying to make a living, for no reason other than you’re in a lower wage bracket.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    I think this is one of very few places where we see –up close and personal — the growing income inequality in this country. The rich are rich and the rest of us are screwed, and they know it. It’s deeply satisfying to a segment of this crowd to remind the peons of their lowly status — because it’ll never be them or anyone they know.

    They wish! I have a fantastic interview in my book with a guy who went from making $140K a year to $8/hour. He had the class to admit he had had no idea of his arrogance before that…

  12. Todd Essig

    Over the last few years I’ve helped out some really dear friends who happen to be farmers by manning their table at various farmers’ markets. My favorite story come from a Thanksgiving market when I was helping them distribute the pre-ordered heritage birds they had raised. One of the more pompous customers must have assumed I was some sort of undocumented worker or perhaps someone who was mentally challenged (I was dressed for farm work after all) and told me “we roast a turkey every year for OUR HOLIDAY.” He spoke v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y to make sure I got it. Then he smiled as if he had shared with me something really useful and wise. I just nodded and smiled back. What are you going to do?

  13. Turi McNamee

    I was a waitress for over 6 years and had a number of memorable customers. The worst was probably this lady that stopped me *every* time I passed her table for one piddly thing or another. Her coffee was too hot. Then it was too cold. Her napkin was wrinkled; you get the idea. After the thirteenth stop or so I must have looked annoyed, because she said, “Let this be a lesson to you to go back to school and get a real job.” I was in high school at the time. I still get irritated when I think about it.

    1. I think I hate that one more and more. Right after I graduated from college, I was still working as a cashier for two years in a crappy economy. I was happy to have a job that paid fairly well. I think I would have flipped if someone would have said, “Why don’t you work a real job?” My reply would have been, “Do you know of one, I’m looking…” Gah. I guess working in a supermarket helped me to appreciate it when I finally got a “real job”.

  14. Caitlin Kelly

    Wow. Poor you! One of the things I realized fairly quickly (which may have helped you as an MD?) is that people are already — as I say in my book — pre-pissed. You just stumble into their airspace.

    It’s a good way to learn to laugh or brush off a lot of other people’s shit.

    On the other hand, she was a nasty old coot and you HAD a real job – serving wretches like her. If you’d been older or ruder, you might have said so…

  15. Caitlin Kelly

    Correction, not everyone is like that, clearly.

    But we also got fussbudgets in our store who would waste an HOUR whining about nothing. I couldn’t imagine the torture of being married to them or working for/with them.

  16. jcalton

    I think a large portion of this comes from a culture of instant gratification. We expect everything to be done in an automated or instant fashion (preferably both). That probably goes back to the invention of ATM’s and 800-numbers, but has only worsened with the proliferation of internet retailers and service-providers. We’ve also learned the benefit of being effectively anonymous in a large society–there are virtually no repercussions to treating people this way. Even in the very rare case of someone calling 911 (above) to make you leave, there’s no negative reinforcement: either you get what you want or you go try it again at the next place.

    I know we all wish there were a way to make everyone work a retail or service-industry job at least once in their life. And not just a summer job, either, but a job that you really need. If it doesn’t teach you humility, it should at least help remind you later that those employees are human beings like anyone else.

  17. Caitlin Kelly

    I agree that there is a terrible lack of consequence — retailers are so terrified of losing business, (having lost so much in this recession) I suspect fewer are willing to call out bad behavior.

    And you have NO idea (I certainly did not) how horrible people can be until you’re in that position for a while. The nice clients are great, but the horrid ones…And the nice ones simply can’t believe anyone can be that awful because they would never behave that way.

  18. gypsysister

    Ah, this article hits the nail on the head. I 1st learned that the customer is not always right while working behind a prescription counter (at the register) while in high school. Drug addicts – from codeine to what have you – will definitely make a soul uncomfortable. Pharmacists are pretty good at turning them away. Waiting table later added to the stories, but most diners and drinkers are pleasant, thus generally unmemorable. My best reaction in moments of stress was to smile &/or laugh, take a deep breath and move on, but I confess that I didn’t learn to always do that.

    For Turi, your story is somewhat interesting as the old “runner” obviously knew she was a pain in the arse; otherwise, why would she have made such a comment to you?

    I agree with Suzanna and more. Our culture of consumerism has infiltrated more than just purchases. I’m not a health worker, but I’m guessing that it surfaces in doctor’s offices (to be fair, there is often a need for patient advocacy). I do know that it exists in education, where students prefer to blame the teacher for bad grades rather than examining their own study habits for grades less than “A.” The latter is a subject that comes with many tangents so I’ll stop here.

  19. strife

    I’ve experienced a number of customer horror stories over the years, both as a retail monkey in various capacities, and even in my “real” job doing graphic design work. But there’s one that really sticks out for me as the shining example of a customer gone over the edge.

    One day while working in the music section of a big-box book store chain, a man walked in and asked for help finding a copy of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. He insisted that it had to be the full, 17 minute version of the song and not a radio edit he had heard previously. No problem.

    This store inexplicably carried two versions of the same album the song is on: one was the standard CD release, another was a “deluxe” version, which included every track the standard release had, plus special packaging and a few bonus tracks (one being a live version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”). They sold for the exact same price. I explained the differences to the man and said that for the same price, you may as well get the deluxe version seeing as you got a few extras with it. He looked at me suspiciously, as if I was trying to pull something over on him. He kept repeating that it *had* to be the 17 minute version, and kept asking if I was sure it was on there. I went as far as to show the backs of both CDs so he could compare the track listing. He still seemed unsure, but ultimately said “OK, I’ll trust you. You better be right.”, and bought the deluxe version. I figured that would be it.

    A few hours later he storms back in, points his finger at me, yells “You!”, and then starts chirping that I sold him the wrong version, he knew he was right, how could I have misled him, just can’t find good help these days, etc. This while I was in the middle of helping another customer, of course.

    I finish with the other customer and he starts laying into me again. He says he wants the other CD because that was his first instinct, and I persuaded him otherwise for…a reason he couldn’t state. At this point I was teetering on the edge of tearing into the idiot, but managed to keep my cool. I grabbed the other CD, opened it, and played “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. I asked him, “This is the track you wanted, correct?”. He says, “Yes! Why did you push me to get this deluxe thing when what I wanted was on this one?”. I then put the deluxe version on and played the same track. I let it go on for a minute, then looked at him and said “This is the exact same track. It’s the same length. There is *no* difference whatsoever. Is it possible that you mistakenly played the live version included on this CD?”

    He simply would not budge. I was wrong, he was right, and that was that. I finally just laughed, gave up and just did the exchange in hopes that he’d leave and never come back.

    That did happen, but not before he went around to *every* employee in the store and bitched about how terrible I was, what a poor attitude I had, and that I didn’t know anything about music. That provided a lot of laughs as my peers came back to tell me about his ranting; they knew none of it was true and that the customer was just a douche. Still, I’ll never forget how pissed off I was, and it’s amazing how I can still feel frustration when I think about today.

    I believe he was one of those people who probably felt powerless and unhappy in his own life, and thus made it a mission to take his aggravation out on others. I try to look at every person who acts that way in the same light. The customer is most definitely *not* always right, and any company or business that adheres to such a belief doesn’t deserve the hard work they’d get from me as an employee.

  20. Caitlin Kelly

    What impresses me most about your insane customer ( and I had one that bad which helped push me to quit) is your coworkers’ solidarity. Whether misery loves company, I’d never worked in a place with so much solidarity. We all knew what it took to do that job, let alone do it well.

  21. Interesting Discussion –

    I equate rude, uncouth, and boorish customers to an absolute lack of intelligence. They live in a vacuum and have no respect for all people in their current space at any given time. These people are just plain stupid, don’t get life, and never will…

    Dennis – Portland OR

  22. the9th

    I actually think that, at least to some extent, the casus belli of this nasty treatment of “those who serve,” as Punch Magazine put it (as a cartoon category way back when), is this:

    There are no longer very many areas in which people can control their own lives and their own government vis-a-vis their lives.

    If what James Bamford writes in The Shadow Factory is true (the book is about the NSA–national security agency), then all of our telecommunications/transactions (internet, email, traffic toll transponders, medical records, library borrowing lists, credit card transactions, bank records, for example) have been copied (by “splitter boxes” interposed into the fiber-optic trunk lines for all telecom carriers (US West was a holdout, but the NSA got around that by tapping their cable in a facility where US West had co-located with another carrier–and the CEO was indicted for “insider trading”) since early in 2002.

    Our cellular traffic, that amount of it that does not go through fiber-optic trunk lines at some point, was/is captured by the satellites run by another US “intel” operation, since the early 1990s, Bamford reports. This is the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), notable for the emergency exercise it participated in on 9/11/2001–a simulated attack on the agency’s headquarters by a fuel-laden airplane plowing into the building. Now don’t tell me/that no one foresaw… (to the refrain of “Counting flowers on the wall” (“now don’t tell me/I’ve nothing to do”).

    All of the various companies that have a little “privacy” spiel or stück that they go through for their customers is, I’d say, pretty much a waste of time. Our privacy is long, long gone. The only modicum we still possess is merely a function of data-overwhelm: the huge disk farm(s?) down in Texas that Bamford writes about just can’t process the tsunami of information that is copied every hour of every day. But you can be certain that NSA and its subcontractors (notably Israelis who’ve mastered the art of the Fast Fourier Transform–if that’s at all relevant?) are working hard at hardware and software meant to winnow the needles from the haystack comprised exclusively of more needles.

  23. Caitlin Kelly

    The 9th, interesting theory.

    I do think people walk around with a lot of unexpressed hostility — they hate their job or their boss or not having a job or whatever makes them miserable. We all tell one another to “have a nice day” but secretly seethe. The poor sap in a service job is a sitting duck, a safe place to offlload all that rage. I saw much of this.

  24. stonesean

    I can say first hand, a manager with a backbone makes all the difference.

    I was lucky enough to work in one of the last independent video stores in Michigan (Thomas Video, if anyone cares….google em!)

    Anyway, the owner was always on site, but stayed in his office most of the time.

    Customers would occasionally get rude, or unruly or decide that late fees simply didn’t apply to them.

    It was fun having a boss that would try to resolve the situation, but if/when that failed wouldn’t bow down and beg forgiveness. He would often direct them to the nearest Blockbuster, where the employees would be more willing to put up with their nonsense.

    A few customers found themselves being told to get the hell out of the store and never come back, and were suprised when they would be recognized and find that we the employees were empowered to remind they were told not to return.

  25. Caitlin Kelly

    stonesean, he’s my hero! Store managers are the people who hire and need to retain good staff — and protecting them from abuse when possible is part of that.

  26. Caitlin Kelly

    Ken, every job is a real job – as you learned. One of the most compelling interviews in my retail book was with a man who was making $140K a year — then $8/hr for four months — and candidly admitted how arrogant he’d once been.

  27. Heh, they’ve pulled the “get a real job” on me before too. I was working in a call center full time AND in the Army Reserves to put myself through college (full time as well), and some guy bitched and then hung up on me by saying “go back to school and get a real job.” Sorry that some of us have to work our way through school.

    On the other hand, I then got a job at Spencer Gifts, and that was AWESOME because that’s the kind of store people expect you to be sarcastic in. Making fun of customers was job #1, because if they didn’t have a sense of humour about it, they probably weren’t going to buy anything anyway. 😆

  28. On topic – I firmly believe that if every single person in America read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickle and Dimed,” the world would be a dramatically more compassionate (and saner) place.

  29. Caitlin Kelly

    Tim, I agree that having some idea what these jobs are really like might inculcate a little compassion. My book intends to do this as well, to make clear what it’s like to do a service job well — and how treating a service/customer person like crap for amusement is real bully behavior.

    I have a chapter called Customers From Hell and I list the reasons I think people feel entitled to treat associates so badly.

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