The Customer Isn’t Always Right

Photo by Brian Slaughter

Every gym owner has experienced this client — he doesn’t like the new schedule; he grumbles about the programming, and the staff, and pretty much complains about everything at your gym. You bend over backwards to meet his requests. It’s never enough.

It’s impossible to conduct business without having to deal with the customer from hell. Obviously all good business owners treat customers — including the difficult ones — with respect. However, the popular notion that “the customer is always right” is so ingrained in business culture, owners frequently go too far to accommodate clients and to put up with bad behavior.

The phrase “the customer is always right” is so rooted in the minds of consumers that many think every single complaint or bit of feedback is legitimate and requires immediate action. Yelp has not helped. The potential power of the customer can create a lack of confidence and even fear in otherwise rational, competent business owners.

The problem is, the customer isn’t always right. I think businesses should abandon this phrase altogether because it actually leads to worse customer service. Here’s why the “The Customer is Always Right” is wrong:

It’s Bad for Your Staff

Great customer service can’t come with a double standard. Successful businesses know that they depend on happy, engaged employees. That’s what makes customers happy. A happy employee has more energy, engages better with clients and in turn, provides far better customer service. On the other hand, an owner or manager who consistently sides with customers runs the risk of having employees feel unsupported and disrespected. It also makes them feel that they have to endure obnoxious behavior. Given this scenario, it’s nearly impossible to offer genuine, high quality customer service.

Andrea Seward, the owner of Trident Crossfit in Alexandria, Virginia, told me she takes all client feedback seriously, but backs her staff 99 percent of the time. She told me about a difficult client who had moved from another local gym. In class, he refused to participate in the structured warm-up because his previous gym allowed its members to warm up on their own. After experiencing his behavior in several classes, the Coach approached him and explained why the gym holds a structured group warm up (safety, community, etc.). The Coach told the member that he could not attend class if he didn’t participate in the group warm-up. The member wrote a scathing email about poor customer service, maintaining that the gym should accommodate his desire to warm-up on his own. Andrea courteously responded. But she supported the judgment of the Coach and the general gym policy that group class warm-ups are not optional. “We cannot give our staff a sense of ownership and responsibility, and then not back them up when we have an unreasonable client,” Andrea says.

Gordon Bethune, the former CEO of Continental Airlines, addresses the issue in his book, From First to Worst: “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?

There are certainly many examples of bad employees in every business giving bad customer service. But, the problem cannot be solved by a blanket declaration that “the customer is always right.”

Unreasonable and High-Maintenance Clients are a Time Suck

As a busy business owner, there is only so much time in a day. We all must make sure that we don’t allocate a disproportionate amount of time to a high-maintenance, unreasonable customer who repeatedly causes problems. If you have responded to a client complaint or negative feedback in a professional and courteous manner, but the client is still unhappy, it’s time to move your attention back to your other clients. Those clients inevitably are your most loyal brand ambassadors and often get over-looked when you are mired in dealing with difficult clients.

Several years ago, I fell into the trap of spending way too much time on our very high-maintenance and often unreasonable Crossfit Games team. Once our team qualified at the Regionals, there was an immediate expectation that the team would be given full access to the gym and that we would provide “special” programming. Even though I knew then that our team had virtually no chance of making the Games given the level of athleticism and experience, I accommodated them. I ended up spending a ton of my own time organizing and responding to the team needs and incurred significant expenses on items such as programming, uniforms, entry fees, a circus tent at Regionals and more. I noticed almost immediately that my decision to make special accommodations for some created a clear division between the team and our regular members. But by that point, it was too late to turn back.

When our team placed poorly at Regionals, some complained that our coaching was inadequate, the special programming was not good enough and their poor showing was somehow the gym’s fault. Then, several expected to continue with open access to the gym for training and to be able to train for the next year with special programming, even after Regionals were over. When I didn’t accommodate their “special” needs, most of the team members took their business elsewhere. The whole episode left me feeling stressed and bummed.

The lesson for me was that I should not have spent so much of my own time and resources trying to please a handful of high-maintenance members who were impossible to please. Instead, by focusing my mental and physical attention on my mellow and loyal members, I feel better and our regular clients are more satisfied.

It goes without saying that your job is to be professional, kind and courteous to everyone. I always read and respond to all feedback and complaints. I make changes to my business based on constructive customer feedback. But I am clear on this: the petulant, demanding, unreasonable, angry, demanding customer is definitely not always right.


Photo by Brian Slaughter

Juliet Starrett is the co-founder and CEO of San Francisco Crossfit and, an attorney, two-time extreme whitewater world champion, cancer survivor, winner of the Jefferson Award for public service, and proud wife and mom.