Is the Customer Always Right?

study challenging the long-standing mantra “the customer is always right" determined that in order to better support employee mental health, restaurant operators should have clear policies stating that customers' uncivil behavior will not be tolerated.

“For decades, a customer could be uncivil, angry, yelling or just plain wrong, and employees were expected to deal with it because it was just part of the business," said Dr. Melissa Baker, associate professor and chair of the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  "Now, I’m not sure we can do that anymore. We want to take care of the customer—that’s super important, but if a customer is being uncivil, rude and aggressive, you also really need to make sure that you have the employee’s back."

Baker and co-author Kawon Kim of the University of South Carolina  conducted the study of customer incivility in the hospitality industry and found that employees were more susceptible to aggressive and rude customers when they had their own mental health challenges. Employees with weaker mental health benefit and perform better on the job with managerial support in place. The policies had less of an effect on employees with better mental health.

Baker says a rise in post-COVID customer incivility and higher turnover in the hospitality industry precipitated by low unemployment have combined to bring about a culture shift at many hospitality companies, with an increased focus on the psychological well-being of employees. She said firms that keep their focus solely on the customer risk losing their most talented workers.

To learn more about the survey results, Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine reached out to Dr. Baker.

Why did you want to explore the “Customer is Always Right” saying?

We are increasingly seeing that customers are uncivil across all types of service industries: hotels, restaurants, airlines, retail, and even in doctors offices. While the saying of the “customer is always right” had its heyday, we think it is time to rethink this in both research and practice. 

Most importantly, by having a “the customer is always right” mantra, this may show that you are not supporting your employees. 

Many in hospitality use the phrase as the high standard that guests should expect, but in what ways do you feel it’s been exploited by guests to the detriment of hospitality staff?

Unfortunately, people are becoming less civil in everyday encounters.  By supporting policies that the customer is always right, it leads to an unequal balance of power, which some customers are exploiting. They believe they can do whatever they want to whomever they want.

We want to highlight that it is important to take care of your customers- and so many employees and managers in service want to go above and beyond in taking care of customers. We want to be the makers of your favorite memories. But this is not an excuse for customers to be rude, uncivil, and aggressive to employees or other customers. 

Is this incivility just recent—post-pandemic—or something that has been going on longer?

There has been an increase in customers behaving badly in service settings. There was an increase before the pandemic, but has increased even more post pandemic.  Some businesses have had a huge increase such as doctors offices and airlines. 

Many of my studies on customer-employee interactions find that over 90 percent of employees deal with uncivil customers every day. 

What can restaurant operators do to better support their staff’s mental health, while balancing that with the need to provide good customer service?

Many employees across all types of jobs have quit, where we now find ourselves in the Great Resignation. In today’s business world, we cannot simply ask employees to overwork themselves, be treated poorly, and to just “deal with it."

We have to treat our employees well, with dignity, listen to them, read their body language, and make them feel welcome and supported.

If service firms (and restaurants) want to be competitive in attracting and retaining employees, they need to show that they have the employees back.  This cannot be an empty saying, but we must truly show that we care for the employees well-being. 

The same tenets that lead to excellent customer service for customers, we should utilize with our employees. We have to treat our employees well, with dignity, listen to them, read their body language, and make them feel welcome and supported.

How can they best identify employees who might be most at risk?

The best way to identify employees who have lowered wellbeing is simple. Listen and observe.  If it is ever a surprise to you that an employee is unhappy and quits, you are not doing your job.  There are so many signs that employees may give verbally or through non-verbal’s such as body language and facial expressions.  Be observant, listen, and ask employees. Sometimes a simple, “are you okay” or “I have your back” is incredibly effective at showing support. 

The basics of service are black and white, but hospitality is in full color.  

What surprised you most about the results? Were there any particular stories that resonated with you?

Having worked in the hospitality industry for many years before becoming a professor, there are many stories. While this research did not investigate employee stories, many of my other studies do.  While there are some misbehaving customers out there, there are also so many firms that are doing a wonderful job with turning the tides and showing support for employees. 

Many doctors offices now have “incivility will not be tolerated”. The Rhode Island Restaurant Association has a “Be kind” toolkit for restaurants aimed at ensuring customers are kind to employees. Chick-fil-a has signs that say “Be kind to the employees who came to work today”.  I think this helps inform customers that uncivil behavior is not tolerated and shows a significant amount of support for employees. 

Do you think it’s time to retire the “Customer is Always Right” phrase or does it have a place in hospitality as long as it doesn’t involve hostility?

The customer may not always BE right, but we want to make them feel welcome and create loyal customers. The basics of service are black and white, but hospitality is in full color.  We are the makers of customers “core memories”. We want to create wonderful memorable experiences for our customers.  Perhaps it is time to create wonderful working environments for our employees.  I think this is vital for businesses in today’s world to help attract and retain employees. We need to support our employees, be mindful of their wellbeing, and be champions for the service industry. 

To reach their findings, Baker and Kim surveyed 183 front-line workers in hospitality businesses including restaurants, hotels, clubs, airlines and theme parks in the U.S. Respondents were presented with various scenarios where customers were either civil or uncivil and where their employers had policies that were focused on either the customer or the employee.

The full study appears in the April 2024 edition of the International Journal of Hospitality Management.