The Customer is not Always Right. Sometimes He’s an Asshole.

I went to lunch at Domino the other day right near my office in Santiago.  There is a very large, fast moving waiter who works there.  He has to run from the counter, across a busy pedestrian filled street and out onto the outdoor seating area to deliver food and clear tables.  The other day, he was moving quickly to clean off a table so another set of diners could sit and a man carelessly stood up from his table without looking, knocking a few plates out of the waiters hand.  It was clearly the diner’s fault.  The waiter’s response?  Something along the lines of “fuck your mother, you should look where you are going.”  The diner’s response?  I’m sorry.

A few weeks earlier, I was in a bar and a guy kept demanding faster service, even though the place was super busy.  After he kept complaining, the waiter came over with his boss and the boss told the guy to leave.

Both of these scenes are so completely different from what we have in the US and I love it.  In the US, in the first scenario, the waiter would have apologized profusely and the diner would have likely gotten angry at the waiter, potentially complaining to his manager.  In the bar, the manager might have apologized and given the demanding customer a free drink.

I’ve seen it countless times in restaurants, shops and coffee shops.  I’ve seen customers go off on service employees for having the audacity to make the customer wait 5 minutes instead of 3.  Or having the audacity to make a simple mistake.  And the employee can’t do anything or risk being fired.

So what explains the difference in reaction?  It comes down to the fact that in the US we’ve bought into the philosophy that the customer is always right.  In the most of the rest of the world, if you’re being an asshole, the service worker will tell you so.  I’ve seen it in the UK, Europe and now Chile.  It’s one of the worst parts of our culture and it wasn’t always that way.  So how did we get there?

Back when companies started to grow and the franchise/chain model started to take over from small, family owned businesses, companies needed ways to make sure to standardize operations.  They started to write company policies and employee handbooks.  Instead of trusting their employees to make good, smart decisions on their own, they tried to commoditize the work and wrote black and white rules.  One of them was that the customer is always right.

As this policy became the norm, many in the US started to respond to the new reality.  They could act like assholes and treat employees like shit and still be right!  They might even get rewarded with discounts and free dessert.  As employees became commodities and realized that they had to sit back and take abuse from customers, they just sort of went back into themselves and stopped really caring about their jobs.

And can you blame them?  Service jobs went from where one could think and make decisions to jobs where you had to suck up to people who treated you poorly and you couldn’t respond, no matter how irrational the customer was.  Customers responded to the new policies and now we have spoiled, bratty customers who treat service workers like dogs and service workers who are little more than commodities.  It’s sad.

It’s now bleeding over into non service workers too.  I got an email from a customer today who took it as a personal affront that we had a specific part of our site designed in a different way than he would have preferred.

Obviously, not all people in the US treat service workers poorly.  I bet its only 25-30%, but its a huge number.  When I’m in the US and see behavior like that, I want to say something, but many times don’t.  When I get back, I am going to make it a point to do it from now on.  I encourage you to do it as well.

The customer is not always right. Sometimes he’s an asshole.  And he deserves to be called on it.

19 Comments

  • Nathan, this is a great post! I don’t whole heartedly agree with you though. The “fire your customer” method tends to work well when it comes to B2B, SaaS or in a design setting. Unfortunately in B2C or the service industry you risk losing your shirt if you don’t at the very least address customers’ concern. When word gets out that your servers take emotional dumps on your guests**, you won’t find anyone walking through your doors.

    **This is the perception of the consumer, even if your server is in the right, the consumer will tell his side to ALL his friends.

    You’re experience in the other parts of the world are a great comparative example of why Europe thinks America is a bunch of complaining assholes. The reality is that other cultures genuinely value the 1on1 relationship more (and admit when their wrong). They know their neighbors and sit at tables with strangers because the communities are more tightly knit.

    • Yea, I’m 100% behind the fire your customer method that Tim Ferriss and others talk about for SasS and other creative industries and I agree it’s true that it’s different for brick and mortar establishments.

      I don’t think you need to fire a customer everything he’s an asshole to your waitstaff. But instead of rewarding the shitty behavior, I’d love to see the manager say, “you know, she made a mistake, I’m sorry, but nobody’s perfect.” Or to the person being snotty to someone at a coffee shop “He’s doing his best, your coffee will be ready in a minute.”

      Many in the US ARE complaining assholes. I don’t think it’s that they value the relationships more, I think they just realize that things are not going to be 100% perfect and don’t take it personally if something goes wrong. Many of us expect 100% perfection and get mad when that unreasonable standard does not get met.

  • I’ve noticed this many times when I was in the US, since – as you said – things are completely different in Germany. But there are some downsides to that as well. For example, service personnel can be quite snippy, let you wait forever, and make you feel like you’re being inappropriate for demanding certain things. “Could I get that with potatoes instead of french fries?” is more often met with an irritated face and a comment like “well, I’ll have to ask in the kitchen and you might have to pay extra for that” than a simple “sure, no problem”.
    I always thought it also had to do with different tipping policies. In Germany, we pay a maximum of 10% in tips, but more often it’s around 5%, if at all.

    • Yup, but I think that’s two different issues. Service is better in the US because the incentives are there. When you can earn up to 25% in tips on your restaurant meal, you’ll do whatever you can to make the customer happy. That’s a good thing.

      What I see as a bad thing is that people treat the workers like crap, expecting the 100% perfection and catering to their needs.

    • We are a bit kinder to our Jews here though.

  • When I ran a site giving free service all was ok. when i charged like a $ most people were happy to pay so less and deal with occasional issues with an understanding…… and the biggest assholes were americans and my site has largely non american/non white customers. I actually just ask them to leave and refund their money. I don’t take this kind of crap from anyone.

  • This article is right on the money. I work at a Jiffy Lube in the US, and customers can and will come in and whine, bitch, and complain until they get some kind of discount. I basically politely tell them to fuck off, but the manager rewards and reinforces there rude behavior by caving to their whims every time. It is ridiculous and I hate it.

  • i agree people just only care about themselves.i learned to do da bare minimum

  • I say take your @%^#ing tips then because it’s all bs to be treated that way as a professional. I’m a salesman at Honda International in the U.S., and i just went home for the DAY today because some bitch was eavesdropping a conversation between myself and my manager about a customer situation I was in, HOWEVER–the customer was a really nice guy, I re-iterated that multiple times. the only problem I was having was getting him out from underneath being 10,000 dollars upside down on a vehicle he currently owned, to put him in a 2014 Odyssey EXL RES at 300/month, explaining to my manager I couldn’t do anything about it, though I really wanted to help the guy! the eavesdropping customer felt it was “rude” and “indecent” to be talking about “another customer’s affairs” publicly and around other customers. I wanted to walk up to her and punch her in the [email protected]#^ing jaw. How far up people’s asses can a stick really go?

  • I would like to say…my husband and I have been self-employed for 30+ years and eat out often due to the nature of our business. I have never witnessed in the earlier part of our entrepreneurial experience what I have seen in the past 10 or so years – Everyone is right and no one is wrong.
    The “customer is right” went out the window years ago. The employees that most businesses hire are just “working for a paycheck” and not trying to improve on any skills that the employment might bring to their career moves. It takes great patience to work with the general public and if you do this correctly, it can enhance your ability to team up anywhere and be a problem solver if necessary. Challenges are a part of life – always have been and always will be. Most people are lazy, disinterested in what they do and really do not like people very much. It takes an exceptional person to be a waiter or waitress and unfortunately, the profession doesn’t recognize that much when it comes to hiring individuals. They have a position that needs filled and the applicant needs a job period. Much worse than this is the Hostess that makes the first impression in a restaurant. My husband and I have both stated she should SLAP us first then ask us about being seated. We will typically “walk out” when treated this way because we know what is yet to come – horrible service…forget about the food. You couldn’t eat if you wanted to by that time being so upset over the treatment.
    On the other, I have seen some customers that should never be allowed out of their homes to go anywhere! They are rude, obnoxious and self-centered thinking the whole world should cater to their every need and then some. It is a bad thing to see them enter any establishment in need of a service. I am sure it becomes quite upsetting to the waiter/waitress. Hey, it upsets me to observe it!
    The bottom line is this…when you are working with people and providing a service to them, I don’t care WHO you are and what role you play in serving them, you must appear that they are not bothering you, that they are as important as anyone in the restaurant and suck it up!
    You have no right to treat the customer with any less respect than what you would want to be treated like. This is, in large part, a HUGE problem today. Everyone is so SELFISH that they only think about how THEY are being treated and NO ONE ELSE. Just maybe, if you decide to change your attitude, others will too, but today we have a way of deciding that EVERYONE owes ME something. This philosophy is absolutely not true and will get you into trouble at some point. I say today we do not understand basic principles pertaining to standards in conduct and how to run a successful business if we forget the customer is our greatest asset.
    I had plenty of customers in my business past that I could not stand…the difference was…they never knew it. I treated all my customers the same – with dignity and respect. I even turned around some relationships that started out rocky and ended up being my best and most loyal customers. It’s what you give…not what you get! Grow up and do the right thing. It will surprise you how rewarding it can be. Age and experience counts for a lot!
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  • I work in the US and there’s this guy who will come in every now and then to try to get me fired. No one else, just me. First time I met him it was my third day on my first job and so he told my coworker to take over and complained to my manager I was too slow. People behind him backed me up by complaining about him and reassuring me, I went to the backroom and cried. I had lost a friend in a car accident a week before and it was almost too much. I thought he wouldn’t come back. Today he appeared. I asked my other coworker to help him, but he kept trying to get my attention. This is a good 5 weeks later. He’d sit and hum directly in front of me, I kept a smile and answered some of his useless questions and worked on. I was honestly terrified. It was the middle of a rush, I was grateful for the distraction but at the same time I was shaking so bad I couldn’t do much right. My coworker was in the middle of helping this guy, when he suddenly saw me walking past, interrupts her, to ask me directly for my manager. I tell him she had left, and he basically yells and drops the f-bomb. We’re in a rush, running this way and that, we finally get the food that had backed up a lot of meals and i swear this other guy was before the jerk, I was one of two people on register. I give the other guy his food, and this jerk goes “I ordered before him I should have got my food first!” And he looks at me, I looked at all the plates and grabbed one “Did you order–?” *relays order* him: yes I did! I apologize and proceed to bag his meal, he starts to yell to my coworker that was HELPING him, while he points at ME “This is why I don’t like it here! She’s a horrible worker I HATE her serving me!” I didn’t do CRAP to this guy! I wasn’t even in charge of his order!! Advice would be greatly appreciated, I told my new manager but I hate feeling so attacked and useless because of this guy… Help??

    • Shitty situation. I would talk to your manager, tell them what’s happening and ask for advice. If that doesnt work, see if you can escalate to someone higher up. He sounds mentally ill. Try not to pay attention and hopefully you can make it stop.

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