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Harry Hertz

Customer Care

The Customer Is Always Right. Right?

Or are your employees more important?

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2022 - 12:03

The saying is nothing new: The customer is always right. Customers come first. We’ve heard these adages for a long time. And we’ve questioned them for almost as long. Those of you who know me know that I’ve certainly been doing that for a long time!

Two recent experiences brought this topic back to top of mind. Furthermore, my wife thought it was time for a break from my more academic blog posts. 

Story No. 1

I recently made a routine trip to our local supermarket. As I prepared to check out, I started unloading my purchases on the cashier’s checkout conveyor belt. While I was unloading, another customer (customer No. 2) came behind me and dumped a bunch of items on the belt, saying she hoped I didn’t mind; she didn’t have a cart, and the items were bulky. I said, “Sure. Put them on the belt,” and I continued unloading my items. As the conveyor belt moved forward, I assumed the other customer would hold her purchases back so I could continue unloading. However, I found that I had to keep moving the items back myself. When I turned around to politely ask that she hold her items back, I discovered that nobody was there. When I was finished unloading, there was no stop bar to put at the end of my merchandise, so I told the cashier that my purchases ended with the bag of peppers.

After I paid, the cashier started ringing up the next customer’s items. As I was walking away, that customer (customer No. 3) said to me, “Don’t you want to have the cashier ring up the rest of your items?” When I responded that I was done, I quickly realized that the next customer wasn’t customer No. 2. Just about then, customer No. 2 came running up with a few more items and pushed ahead of customer No. 3.

Without any apology to No. 3, customer No. 2 proceeded to tell the cashier that the first (big) item is actually a return, and she had lost the receipt. (I had to listen; this was getting interesting.) The cashier explained that the item was currently still for sale; he would need a manager’s approval to key in the return since customer No. 2 had come through the store where the item was on the shelves. Now, customer No. 3 was getting impatient, and customer No. 2 started cursing the cashier. I left. But, as I was pulling away in my car, customer No. 2 exited the store vigorously gesticulating.

I don’t know what had happened after my own exit. However, I was left to ponder: Did customer No. 2 have a right to curse and gesticulate? What about the way she treated customer No. 3? And what about the cashier? How was he treated by his manager when customer No. 2 was cursing him?

Story No. 2

I recently returned from a meeting at a Ritz-Carlton hotel with the Baldrige Executive Fellows. A hallmark of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. is its motto, “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” Their employees treat each other with the same respect and service that they provide guests. And management values employees and customers equally—so much so that management will effectively “fire” a guest who doesn’t treat an employee with respect. Managers will provide that guest with accommodations at another hotel and provide transportation to that hotel. Are they saying that the customer isn’t always right? Are they showing employees how important and valued they are?

The big question

So, who is more important—the customer or the employee? Sir Richard Branson is known for saying, “Clients don’t come first; employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” This is also a sentiment frequently expressed by Baldrige Award recipients.

I think an organization’s core values and culture are important indicators of how customers will be treated. Organizational environment determines how employees feel, as well as the attitude they display when interacting with customers. The quality of the employee’s work is directly related to the quality of how they're treated at work. I’ve experienced the pure joy of the exhilarating environment when I walk into a Baldrige Award recipient’s organization. You can feel the enthusiasm. I, as most or all of you, have also experienced the oppressive environment when I walk into an organization where employees are ignored, frequently overridden, or disrespected by management.

An example

Customer focus and employee engagement go hand in glove. Both principles start with the treatment and respect senior leaders show their employees. This truism came back to me while reading a 2017 Forbes article relating to a case study from Continental Airlines.

In 1994, Continental had a toxic culture. The company had gone through 10 CEOs in the past 10 years. Employee attitudes had resulted in the airline consistently being ranked low, and it was on the verge of its third bankruptcy.

Gordon Bethune became the airline’s president (and subsequently its CEO and board chairman) in October 1994. He started by changing the organizational culture. A previously closed environment with key-card access to the executive floor was changed to an open-door environment with executive-level access for all employees. He fired 39 executives who couldn’t adapt to the new, employees-first environment. The airline went from dead last in every customer service ranking to winning more J.D. Power awards for customer service than any other airline globally. And, coincidentally, the stock price rose from $2 a share to $50 a share. 

Some questions to ponder

The Baldrige Excellence Builder, an introductory set of questions for your organization to ponder, helps you understand how well you are accomplishing what is important to your organization.

Category five is all about your workforce. Here are some basic questions to consider:
• How do you build an effective and supportive workforce environment?
• How do you engage your workforce for retention and high performance? 

And a few more detailed questions to consider:
• How do you support your workforce via services, benefits, and policies?
• How do you determine key drivers of workforce engagement? 

And since it all starts with leadership, here are a couple of questions from category one, on leadership:
• How do senior leaders communicate with and engage the entire workforce?
• How do senior leaders create an environment for success now and in the future?

So, who gets priority consideration in your organization? Does it start with your workforce?


About The Author

Harry Hertz’s picture

Harry Hertz

Harry Hertz retired in June 2013 from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he had served as director of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program since 1995. For more than 15 years he was the primary architect of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, responsible for expansion of the Baldrige Program and Award to healthcare, education, and nonprofits, including government. Hertz serves on the advisory group for VHA’s Center for Applied Healthcare Studies, and on the adjunct faculty of American University. He has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and a Ph.D. from M.I.T.


The Customer is Always Right

While the customer may not always be right. Poor customer service will always be wrong.

Not all Karen´s are complainers. Some are simply pointing out how a lack of good customer service is still inappropriate.

Customer facing service team members need to understand the difference and they need to stop wincing when the customer points out their perfromance failings.


I agree with the sentiment of putting the employee first, ahead of the customer.  I belive management guru Tom Peters preaches the same philosophy as Sir Richard. 

I believe we've all experienced customers that should be "fired".