Applebee’s customer proves the customer is always right


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Applebee’s is the latest company to be caught up in controversy over a receipt. This time it was a server who took a picture of a customer’s receipt and posted it online.

By my count, this is the fourth receipt-related service failure to go viral within the past twelve months, but this one adds a few new plot twists. The public outcry was largely directed against the customer who wrote “I give GOD 10% why should I give you 18” in lieu of a tip. The server who posted the photo was fired, but an online petition urging Applebee’s to reinstate her is gathering steam. And, I’m not even sure Applebee’s is at fault for what’s happened so far (more on that later).

What I do know is this incident offers further proof that the customer is always right.

The true meaning of the customer is always right
It’s unclear who first said “The customer is always right.” I tried to learn the answer while doing research for my book, Service Failure, but the best I could do was narrow it down to a few business leaders from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One of the best examples was a quote attributed to the legendary retailer, Marshall Fields. He purportedly said, “Right or wrong, the customer is always right.”

The Applebee’s customer was clearly wrong, but we wouldn’t be talking about it if the server hadn’t photographed the receipt and posted it online. The server neglected the advice from Marshall Fields when she went out of her way to prove the customer was wrong.

Poking a sleeping bear
Proving a customer wrong is generally a zero sum game. It tends to escalate the situation by engaging the customer’s defense mechanisms and can trigger powerful emotions such as frustration, embarrassment, or shame. In many ways it’s like poking a sleeping bear where nothing good will come out of it, but a lot of bad things are likely to happen.

In this case, the Applebee’s customer was told by friends that her receipt was posted online. This led to strong feelings of shame and embarrassment and now the Applebee’s customer was an angry bear.

Angry bears don’t apologize for their misdeeds. They call the offending restaurant and roar and roar until someone gets fired. In this case it was the server who posted the receipt online who lost her job.

Why Applebee’s isn’t (entirely) to blame
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post suggested an employee’s viral service failure is the company’s fault. That still holds true, but from the perspective that most people have heard about the Applebee’s receipt incident but don’t know the names of the individuals involved.

The negative publicity generated by this incident may be part of the cost of doing business. The Applebee’s restaurant in question is a franchise, which means that Applebee’s doesn’t have direct managerial control over the restaurant’s employees. They also took swift action to address the issue and even confirmed that the server in question had been fired.

The situation has created some unfortunate PR challenges for Applebee’s. I’m just not sure what else they could have done. (Ideas, anyone?)

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Okay, I haven’t read your book, Service Failure, but I do know that restaurant service employees make the worst wages of any other industry in the US – because of the way the system is set up, employees have to rely on tips to even come close to making minimum wage for their hard work. So, maybe Applebee’s per sey isn’t to blame, but they could have stepped up to the plate and explained to the general public why maybe that employee didn’t do such a horrible thing, and why, maybe the entire system might need an overhaul.

    thanks –


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