Why the Customer is Often Wrong

Good service is hard to find, partly because we complain so much.


I’ve recently experienced, and heard of others experiencing, some pretty terrible interactions with customer service. First, when I went to get my new Maryland driver’s license, I was initially told that I didn’t have the proper documents with me, even though I had meticulously followed the online directions. Those directions failed to warn me that I needed two forms of proof of residency, not just one. The woman at the counter abruptly turned me away and was about to move on to the next customer before I found a second form of identification that she found acceptable.

A few hours later, I ate a bagel sandwich from a nearby shop. It ended up giving me food poisoning. When I called the store to report the illness, the store manager took down all of my information without once apologizing for causing my illness. When the corporate office got in touch with me the next day to ask more detailed questions, it offered an apology – but only after insinuating that I was probably mistaken in blaming the bagel for my woes. I had half-expected at least a gift certificate.

[See Why Customer Service Has Gotten So Bad]

Lastly, over the weekend, a travel website told my friend – incorrectly – that his flight had been delayed by two hours. As a result, he missed his flight, and was stuck out of town for an extra day. He even had to pay for his unexpected hotel stay himself. When he confronted the company about it, the customer service representative essentially suggested he must have misunderstood the message. Again, no apology.

What happened to that old adage, “The customer is always right?” These days, we seem to be more frequently told that we are wrong.

One theory is that we’ve become a nation of such complainers that companies have no choice but to ignore us, because coddling us is simply too time consuming and expensive. After all, Sprint took a stand against demanding customers in 2007, when it told some of its customers that it was terminating their contracts after receiving “frequent calls” from them. Articles in the Harvard Business Review have also concluded that a small number of customers often cost companies more money than they generate, which means companies might be better off getting rid of them.

[See The Art of Complaining]

Firing customers sounds like a twisted company policy. Even if it makes sense in theory, in real life the strategy could backfire, because it makes the company look like a jerk. Other customers – good, profit-generating customers – could be turned off and take their business elsewhere, too.

That’s what Emily Yellin, Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us, told me when I interviewed her last year. She said, “I think some companies have [dropped customers] to their own detriment. … The cost to [Sprint’s] already sagging reputation was great.” She adds that customers usually aren’t being overly demanding for fun – because it’s not fun to interact with customer service and stay on hold for hours. Demanding customers usually indicate a deeper problem with the company, she says. After all, that’s why we’re complaining.

Have you had any terrible customer service experiences lately? Tell us about them.