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Jim Mullen: The customer’s always wrong

Jim Mullen • Updated Aug 25, 2017 at 4:00 PM

When you’re shopping and you hear “Clean up in aisle 10” over the loudspeaker, it’s usually because some customer dropped a bottle of something messy on the floor. It happens so often, we’re not even surprised when we hear it. No one expects the dropper to pay for it, much less get a mop to clean it up. Accidents happen.

Another thing you see a lot at big grocery stores? A few abandoned items at the end of the checkout belt. There’s a pack of bologna sitting there that someone decided they don’t need, or missed completely while dealing with an unruly child or making a phone call. How long has that bologna been there? One minute? Ten minutes? Three hours? Will the store put it back on the shelf or write it off?

I think about these things while the customer in front of me is writing a check for a loaf of bread. Really? In 2017? Was she out of doubloons and pieces of eight? But what can you do? The customer is always right, right?

I have an acquaintance who tells every server in every chain restaurant that he goes to that it’s his birthday. It’s never his birthday -- but he always gets whatever their in-house birthday promotion is. A free drink, a cupcake with a candle in it. He is also allergic to practically everything, and always wants the kitchen to make special things for him. One day he said, “Can you make the fried chicken without the chicken?” When the hapless server had to come back from the kitchen and tell him no, my acquaintance acted very upset. After all, it was his birthday! But the customer’s always right.

We can all tell horror stories about our fellow passengers on airplanes. You can see videos of them all over the internet: people sticking their bare feet through the space between the seats in front of them. Passengers who think the word “carry-on” means “bring everything you own.” Travelers who think that the rules about turning off their phones apply to everyone but them.

Why does this happen? Because we still have this old-fashioned, way out-of-date idea that the customer is always right.

Wrong. The customer is not always right.

I don’t want my airline to decide the unruly, drunk passenger is a danger to himself and others after we’ve taken off. I want them to stop him at the gate. I don’t want my restaurant dinner spoiled by people who don’t know how to behave in public. Why would I ever go back to a place that treats rude, loud, obnoxious people the same way they treat me, a customer who doesn’t cause problems and is easy to deal with?

It’s the good customers who should get the rewards, not the perpetually squeaking hinges. Why should I have to complain to the hotel front desk about the noisy party going on in the room next to mine? Why should I have to tell the person using the cellphone in the movie theater to turn it off? By the way, movie theaters: How’s your business? Oh, yeah, it’s in the tank. Don’t blame Netflix, blame your problem customers.

Businesses, here’s a tip: Your worst customers aren’t the ones who pay your bills. They cost you money and suck up your time. How often do your best customers say, “I want to speak to the manager”? Almost never. How many times do your worst customers say it? The minute they walk in the door. It’s their default position. It’s practically the first words out of their mouths. They return good food to the kitchen, they keep your staff from helping other customers, and they are cheap.

Getting rid of problem clients will make you money. Let them stomp off in a huff. Smile when they tell you they’re never coming back. Give them your competitor’s address and phone number. Your paying customers will appreciate it.

Contact Jim Mullen at [email protected]

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