The Customer Is Not Always Rght


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I have just returned from three enjoyable days working with a small European telco. The energy, creativity and focus of senior management was amazing. They are a living example of how an incumbent PTT need not become tired and resigned to the gradual attrition of customers to new competitors. And how they can fight back from a position of strength. But more on that later…

An old saw goes something like, “there are two rules of customer service: Rule 1, the customer is always right. Rule 2, if in any doubt refer to Rule 1.”

But is this always true?

On the way home, my flight to Frankfurt stopped at Zürich to let some passengers off and to pick-up some new ones. Those of us en-route to Frankfurt had to stay on-board for 40 minutes whilst the plane was re-provisioned and the new passengers boarded.

Some of the en-route passengers clearly did not understand why things were organised this way and started to kick-up a fuss about disembarking, despite being told clearly that they must wait on the plane (due to EU regulations). A minority of the passengers became quite agitated after 20 minutes waiting and complained vocally about the cabin crew’s unhelpfulness and unfriendliness and the airline’s general incompetence. And an even smaller minority even started arguments with cabin staff over seeming trivia.

I checked in my travel documents and it stated quite clearly that the plane would stop in Zürich and that the stop would take 40 minutes. It didn’t state that passengers must stay on board. But cabin crew did and explained why.

The passengers who complained loudest either had incomplete travel information (hardly the airline’s fault), hadn’t read it (hardly the airline’s fault either) or just didn’t want to abide by the rules (again hardly the airline’s fault). These passengers hadn’t completed their part of the bargain: they were too busy complaining about their ‘rights’ as passengers, to bother about their associated ‘responsibilities’. They were clearly in the wrong.

In contrast to these passengers, cabin staff remained helpful, polite and calm throughout the whole episode. Even when a small minority of customers were downright rude. I suspect that they had seen this all before, but it didn’t show.

Sometimes customers do not carry out their part of the bargain. Sometimes they are stupid. And sometimes they are just plain selfish. Good customer service staff have to put up with this sort of behaviour from customers all the time. The best, just like the airline staff, do it with a certain calmness and charm that we could all learn from.

What do you think? Is the customer always right? Or are some customers a right royal pain…?

Post a response and get the conversation going.

Graham Hill

Graham Hill (Dr G)
Business Troubleshooter | Questioning | Thoughtful | Industrious | Opinions my own | Connect with me on LinkedIn


  1. Graham has a great comment. We’ve all seen it before… the customer who’s so obnoxious that he or she won’t listen to reason. However… if this is a recurring problem, what steps have the airline and the travel industry taken to assuage the customers?

    While I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the passengers traveling through to be “forced” to remain on the aircraft, surely there are some things that can be done to assuage them. The airline must realize that waiting at the gate is, if nothing else, a perceived problem for some. No opportunity to stretch your legs, use a “real” bathroom… that kind of thing.

    In this case, the airline must deal with the hand it’s dealt – passengers are not allowed to disembark. But, c’mon airlines, get creative. Forty minutes is not that long. Don’t exacerbate the problem by settling for the “that’s just the way it is” response.

    Speaking of responses… that’s mine.

    Jim Parker

  2. Jim

    Thank you for your comment. It is much appreciated.

    My post was meant to illustrate how unreasonable customer can be. And that they were on the Cyprus Airways flight in question.

    But as you so rightly point out, there is more that the airline could have done to understand the customer ‘waiting’ experience from the customers’ perspective and to fix some of the bits of the experience that were a bit broken.

    By not fixing the problems at source, the airline allowed the situation to get out of hand, thus creating dissatisfaction for customers and emotionally-stressful work for cabin staff.

    Graham Hill

  3. Isn’t this the challenge of all companies?

    To assess ahead of time the actions they take and processes they follow – with thought around customer reaction, cost implications and knock on effects?

    What is missing is the effort to develop the right skills in people within the company’s control. Many times the processes are detailed, “process-flowed” and documented. And airlines are a great example of training pilots through flight simulations yet not as much through customer interactions.

    As always, begin with the end in mind. What does the business really want to deliver – work back from there!

    If airlines are serious about service and customer management, perhaps they might put as much R&D into people development – because the customer sometimes IS wrong, stupid and downright rude.

    But what do we observers think of a flight attendant, service provider who has the skill and poise to rise above it? Awesome.


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