“Waiter, there is a fly in my soup” — When Customer Service Goes Wrong

Customers are always right is one of the adages often proclaimed in marketing. This well-worn phrase was coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr. (1864–1947), a retail magnate and founder of the British department store Selfridges. Lucid managers object against this presumed absolute truth because bowing to every whim of customers would make it very hard to achieve organisational goals, i.e. to provide a return to shareholders or help as many people as possible in the case of social marketing.

Some might hold that the customer is always right about their perception, but that is a far too simplistic view of this problem. This statement needs to be unpacked and analysed to find it what it means. There are three aspects to this: customers, the qualifier always and the idea of being right.

For this statement to make sense, the term “customers” should be demarcated, or in marketing jargon, segmented. Market segmentation is, however, an artificial construct used to simplify soup.” groups of people. Understanding customers does, however, go beyond quantified constructs and focuses on customers as individuals. Furthermore, demographic variables are poor predictors of behaviour as they rely on descriptive, rather than causal factors.1

Customers are individuals that can only be understood within a specific context. This context implies that the statement should be “the customer is always right”, narrowing it down to individuals, rather than all or some customers.

The second part of the statement, “always right”, infers a universality. Whatever the customer says, the truth is on their side. However, truth is a tricky concept, specially when combined with a universal statement. Absolute universal truth is mostly proclaimed by religions and not in marketing. The “always right” component should be understood as an ethical marker. The term always implies that an organisation should do whatever a customer wants because they are presumed to be always right. However, an organisation serves customers, but can never become the slave of customers as it will undermine economic sustainability. This can be corrected by narrowing the statement down to: “The customer is sometimes right”. But this is not enlightening and practically tautological.

The way out of this conundrum is to find out what a customer can be right or wrong about. The easy way out is to say that the customer is always right about their experience, but that is too much of a simplification as two planes of reality are at work in customer service:

  • Fact: “Waiter, there is a fly in my soup.”
  • Feeling: “I am angry because there is a fly in my soup.”

Customers can indeed be wrong about facts because they are by their very nature verifiable. A waiter can confirm whether there is a fly in the soup or whether it is an oddly shaped croûton. Perception is not reality, and where possible, every claim customers should be verified.

The customer is always right about their state of mind

The second type of statement is much harder to verify because it is, in the words of Bernard Williams, incorrigible.2 A proposition p is incorrigible when it satisfies this description: “if I believe that p, then p“. These statements can neither be verified nor denied, and they assume that the customer is sincere, and they thus have to be true. Customers are logically always right about when it comes to incorrigible propositions about how they feel about the level of service. The incorrigibility is problematic because of the implied sincerity. Some customers might exaggerate their feelings to obtain preferential treatment. Some psychologists would argue, however, that nobody can indeed be sincere about their internal state of mind because of subconscious drives. Although customers might not always know or able to express their state of mind, incorrigible statements are absolute truths to those who utter them.

The original statement can be corrected by saying that “the customer is always right about their state of mind”. The customer is always right about how they feel about the level of service, and the marketer has to accept these statements as absolute truths.

There is a Fly in My soup

Footnotes

  1. Russell J. Haley (1968) Benefit segmentation: a decision-oriented research tool. Journal of Marketing, pp. 30–35.
  2. Bernard Williams, Descartes: The project of pure enquiry, (London: Penguin Books, 1978).

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