The customer is always right. . . in theory

By Mir
July 21, 2006

Andrea recently had a rude awakening in the world of 21st century retail:

I know I should start this by saying how pretty you are, as well as patient for my e-mail mix-up the other day. What a bad day that was. I absolutely LOVE your site and check it each day. I’m enjoying my bunco set (I play once a month or so with some friends) and I’m eagerly awaiting my free razor. Thank you for sharing the deals!

So, back to my question: Long story apparently not-so-short, I was told a product was in stock but when I arrived at the store, I learned that their computer inventory was off. I didn’t even receive an apology. Here is the question: How do you, consumer of all consumers, deal with what seems to be the current prevailing notion that the customer is NOT always right? Is there an effective letter I can write? I’m not looking for freebies or what-have-you, but I feel so helpless against companies (and there are many lately, including my homebuilder, satellite TV provider, the company we bought our playground from, etc. etc.) that seem to have given up on treating people right. Where has customer service gone???

Where has customer service gone? Well, that’s a question in and of itself, and something we could spend an entire week discussing. It’s gone away in favor of large chain box stores, who make their money off of volume rather than service… it’s gone away because so many people can and will take advantage that everyone accepts a lower level of service as a result… it’s gone because there’s hardly any job retention in retail and so the person handling your complaint is busy thinking about lunch and how much she hates this job rather than how you can be helped.

Customer service nowadays is a rare and elusive animal.

The good news is that most of the time, the streamlined process of bringing up your little ticket and then driving around back to the warehouse for your Big Box works out just fine. The bad news is that when something goes wrong, you can actually hear the tumbleweeds blowing by as you try to find someone who can help you.

So what can you do? The stomp-your-feet-and-scream method has never worked well for my children (not for lack of trying, though), and it probably won’t work for you, either. How does a regular consumer get good service?

Do your research before parting with your money. Make a conscious effort to shop at establishments which you believe have services and policies in line with your needs. That sounds simple, but sometimes it isn’t. For example, I love the prices at Burlington Coat Factory (a discount chain ’round these parts), but they don’t do any cash returns. Ever. If you need to return something, you get store credit. I don’t shop there anymore, because I think that’s ridiculous. And no, I don’t return things very often, but not having the option is enough for me to decide not to give them my money.

Often this means going to the smaller guys who have more of a personal touch—and I advocate this, if you can afford it, for a myriad of reasons—but not all big chains are created equally. I’ve always been delighted with the customer service at Amazon, even though I suspect the place is run by alien robots. On the other hand, (and please let’s not start the Walmart debate right now, but…) I have yet to find an employee at my local Walmart who appears to be capable of tying their own shoes.

Take notes and keep receipts. In some circles this is known as gathering evidence. It’s too bad that you’d need to do this, but you do. So do it. In the case of your grill snafu, Andrea, I would have written down the details of your phone call—what time you called and with whom you spoke. In the case of a prolonged retail drama (confusion with delivery or a defective item; haven’t we all had those sorts of experiences?), you want to be logging every call, every email, every interaction. And always get a name. For one thing, you want as much detail in your records as possible. For another, people are more likely to try to help you if they know you can report them if they don’t. A simple, “And could I have your name, please? Thanks,” should do it.

When confusion strikes, be polite but firm. Listen: I agree that the customer should always be right. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of customers are gigantic poopyheads, and a lot of folks who work in retail are weary of dealing with them. Broadcasting a sense of entitlement or getting angry is not going to motivate yonder Store Drone to help you out. It is going to cause him to decide you’re a jerk. Be pleasant, if you can manage it. If you can’t, be sure to say things like, “I understand that this isn’t your fault” (if dealing with a clerk, say, who isn’t the one who made the error) or “I’m sorry, I’m just very frustrated right now” (to explain that you are aggravated but not attacking the person at hand). This does not mean folding and accepting defeat. It just means continuing to be a pleasant person while the problem is resolved. You catch more flies with honey, as the saying goes.

Move up the food chain. Ask to speak with a manager. If you’re at the sort of store where there are department managers, and that person is useless, ask to speak to the general manager. If the manager(s) in question yields no resolution, while writing everything down in your little notebook or handheld (because you are taking notes, including the names which you’ve ever-so-politely requested), ask for information on contacting corporate directly.

Be a part of the solution. Remember this essential life truth: Not everyone is as smart and beautiful as you are. It’s true! And sometimes even well-meaning folks aren’t able to come up with a solution because… well… they’re just not all that bright. Don’t stand there and say “Fix it!” and expect that a solution will magically appear. In the case of the missing item… I probably would’ve asked if they could order one from another store. If that wasn’t a possibility, I would have (so politely, so genially) inquired as to whether they had a comparable model available which I could purchase for the same price as the one I’d been promised. If that solution was also rejected, I would have simply asked if they were willing to do anything to keep me from walking out of there feeling like my time had been wasted and their customer service was subpar. Again, this is all handled with the utmost of decorum and respect. But don’t take no for an answer until you feel that all options have been explored.

Make your voice heard. DO tell a manager if you feel that an experience has been so aggravating that you can no longer patronize their establishment. They never want to hear that they’re losing a customer, if there’s anything they can do to keep you. DO write a letter to corporate detailing your experience and expressing your dismay at no longer being able to continue being the loyal customer you once were. A tone of sad consternation carries much more weight than anger. An angry person might be crazy. An eloquent but unhappy person is more likely to be heard.

Saying “And I’m going to tell everyone I know never to shop there!” translates to “I am really angry and also possibly crazy.”

Saying “I’ve discussed the incident with many of my friends and coworkers and all agreed that this was really out of character for Store X and an unpleasant downturn in customer service” translates to “I am spreading the word of my bad experience and I’m a reasonable enough person that people are listening to me.”

Bad PR is the kiss of death to retail establishments. Most stores will respond to a well-composed tale of woe in some way. And if they don’t? Well, then, you just got your answer about whether or not you want to shop them again, didn’t you?

Make your voice heard when everything is good, too. Part of supporting the places that do adhere to a gold standard of customer service is applauding them for that. Don’t just write a letter when you’re angry. Write a letter when everything went off without a hitch. Write a letter to say, “Wow, in a world where service is nearly extinct, it’s always a pleasure to patronize you.” It makes everyone feel all warm and fuzzy. It’s good karma. And it it helps keep the good places maintaining their exceptional practices even when some of those aforementioned poopyheads come through and try to ruin it for everyone. Never hesitate to praise; it’s one of the most effective yet underutilized tools at the customer’s disposal to reinforce good service.

Money talks. Finally, remember that nothing speaks as loudly as cold, hard cash. If a store doesn’t meet your expectations, don’t shop there. Find one where you can feel good about spending your money. You may not think that your piddly little purchases can make a difference, and you’re right, in a way—alone, they probably can’t. But if everyone stopped shopping at the stores who are the most egregious offenders until things changed, there would be a difference (eventually). Even if you don’t live to see that change, you’ll sleep better at night. You can view this as “Money talks,” or you can go with my more favored modification of the same theme, which is simply “Don’t give your money to jerks.”

None of this causes your chosen grill to show up on your back porch, I’m afraid. But they’re pretty good rules for navigating your retail purchases. Here’s to smoother shopping ahead!


  1. Working in the lovely world of retail I can tell you where it went, well, if I told you there would be death and that’s never pretty. I can say that as a salesperson who works in the retail world the customer ISN’T always right, but only under the circumstances where said customer is whining and horrible and trying to pull one over on us. At our store, I am always the most bouyant and energetic person on the floor. Granted I work alone so that’s easy.

    I digress…Generally people who work in the world of retail are treated like dirt (not always and only by customers). There is no pride in their job so why should they offer things such as apologies (read those words with sacrasim please)? IMO, you get kindness by giving kindness. Sooooo, these employees are not the brightest bulbs in the pack, nor are the people who trained them. Somewhere along the line, they totally got the shaft. I, on the other hand, LOVE my job (for the most part, except when dealing with the whiny cry babies) and will treat everyone who walks in my store with the respect with which they treat me. On your cell, I ignore you. Come in smiling, I beam back.

    Sorry for the disertation…LOL

  2. I am a huge believer in good customer service. I will write letters to complain about bad service and to commend excellent service. It only takes a few minutes of my time and it does make a difference.

    I will also boycott and tell anyone that will listen if I don’t get a matter resolved. I had an issue three years ago at Christmas with a huge retailer that starts with a K and ends in Mart.

    My son was calling to get prices for a video game that he wanted. I have been teaching him that it pays to shop around. He was on hold waiting for an answer for over twenty minutes. I called back and waited another fifteen minutes. I hung and this time asked for a manager. After a relatively short five minutes a guy answers. I got out that I had been holding for electronics and BAM! back on hold.

    I wrote a letter to the corporate offices and there was never a response. So, I don’t go there anymore and tell anyone that asks why.

    If they had responded in any way I would have given them another chance, but now I don’t even look at their flyer when it comes in the Sunday paper. I don’t know if they care, but the parking lot is alway less crowded than the other retailers in the area.


  3. That was perfect, Mir. Years ago I worked midscale and upscale retail. In those ancient days, we were still tracking inventory manually, which meant that, if a customer called in, we had to go to the storeroom and check for the item, if it wasn’t on the floor. But we had more people working in my department than are covering the floor in most modern stores.

    Computers have been the excuse that stores have used to cut back on employees. In some ways it has worked very well, in others it just s**ks.

    The person that Andrea spoke to by phone was probably not the person she spoke to at the store. In the old days, her call would have been forwarded directly to someone in the department (and there would have been multiple people in that department), but now it’s usually handled by an operator who looks up the item on the computer system.

    It was unacceptable that Andrea didn’t receive an apology.

    She was probably not offered any options because the employee she spoke with is not authorized to do anything. Also, that employee may have been covering 3 departments and simply did not feel they had time to do anything for Andrea.

    Exactly as you said, customers need to be pro-active (unless they’re shopping at an upscale retailer (Tarzhay does not qualify, Nordbum does)), and ask what can be done. Make a request. Don’t whine. A demanding, whiny, over-entitled customer, who drains employee time and makes over-the-top demands, will be considered a customer who is not wanted. As much as many retailers may push to keep every customer, at some point they will recognize that some customers cost them money.

    Be the nice customer, the friendly customer, the smiling person who just wants some resolution. Don’t make threats about getting the employee fired. Don’t threaten to write the president of the company. They’ve heard all those threats before, and the employees are going to write you off right then as just another big poopyhead.

    And, for a change, ask them how their day is going. They’ll usually lie and say it’s been fine, but at least they’ll know you took 30 seconds to treat them as a fellow human being. They’ll remember you kindly. And if they make an extra effort, thank them. They are human, too.

  4. Keep in mind that I was in retail for a number of years and I’m now in finance (which means I know what people can/not do and how the systems work).
    Consider- I bought Mr. a gift card from a shoe place. The guy behind the counter took FOREVER and then ran my card 2x. He assured me he didn’t. I was in the store for probably an hour (obviously, I’m leaving out a lot of the time wasting). Next morning I check my account and the card had indeed been charged 2x. I called the store to speak to the manager who finally managed to give me the gift card the night before. He was very nice, remembered me, etc, but I told him I could not make it back to the store because I was on my way out of town, the store was 40 minutes in the other direction, and just last night he had assured me everything was fine. Again, I know all they need is the number of the card, which I was willing to give him. I even offered to fax copies of everything (store sales slip, double charge listed on a/c, and such) to him but he claimed their fax machine was broken and told me I would have to come in or just, “live with it.” I was completely nice and curtious until that (did he mean, “get livid with it?”). So I hung up with him, called back and got another employee and asked who I should call if I had a comment such as an “atta boy” to make about the store. She gave me the regional manager’s and corporate office’s direct numbers. I called both and explained my situation. Within 10 minutes the store manager called back, did my refund over the phone, and managed to fax me proof of the refund. When Mr. spent his gift card we made sure his merchandise equaled exactly the amount on the card, no more, no less, and never shopped there again.
    Moral- check, double check, be nice, and if that fails, go outside the store.

  5. Just one other note- if there had not been so much drama in getting the stupid card in the first place and if the manager hadn’t remembered me, I probably wouldn’t have been so insistant that I not be further inconvenienced. I always remember that retail is a very difficult field and try to keep the employee’s feelings in mind when problems to arise.
    Just sayin’

  6. Chris, I agree that you were completely justified. And that’s exactly how you should have handled it.

  7. Just a note as someone who used to work in a bookstore – if you are calling to see if something is in stock ask how many are in stock. We would often get calls from people looking for books and if our computer system told us there was one in stock we’d have to put the person on hold and go physically check the shelf. Why? The computer lied to us on a regular basis.

    Also people would “hide” books by putting them on the wrong shelf so that they could come back and get them later. Plus I’m pretty sure people stole books as well (our “security” was practically non-existent).

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