The Customer Isn’t Always Right

The customer is always right. This is one of those business rules that just never made any sense to me. Some retailers truly take it to heart like Stew Leonard’s, a small chain of uber customer service friendly supermarkets that has two rules (set in stone by the way) 1. The customer is always right. 2. If the customer is wrong refer to rule number one.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t give excellent customer service. What I am saying is to use judgment.
There are great retail folk law stories about an elderly couple returning snow tires at Nordstrom and Nordstrom accepting the return. Nordstrom doesn’t sell snow tires but the store clerk figured that the couple mistook Nordstrom for the Sears that anchored the other side of the mall.

A client in Nevada had a customer she was literally afraid of. This “scary client” was mean, demanding and rude. From the minute she walked in she interrupted other customers’ conversations, she would leave all the clothing thrown on the dressing room floor, and out of every 3 things she bought, she would return 2,of course while making a huge scene. Was she right? The store owner eventually took her out to lunch and had a talk with her. The talk wasn’t pleasant with tears and drama but the store owner realized that the customer had personal problems in her relationships with her boss, husband and children the only time she felt “heard” was when she was being bossy and mean in the store. Talk about retail therapy. The lesson is that the anger wasn’t a reflection of the store rather it was her redirecting negative emotion. But the customer wasn’t “right” to have such temper tantrums.

What about when a customer breaks something and insists it wasn’t their fault? Take in case the woman that wanted to try on a pair of skinny jeans. The salesperson suggested a bigger size than the one she had picked because that style was running on the small side. In fact she told the customer maybe we should look at two sizes bigger because they were running so small. The outraged customer asked the salesperson if she was telling her that she was fat, and yanked the size small jeans from the salesperson’s hands while she huffed and puffed her way into the dressing room. Two minutes later the salesperson heard the RIP! She asked if everything was ok and the customer answered that this jean was defective and made out of cheap fabric. She got dressed and threw the jeans at the salesperson. The salesperson tried to stop her and told her she had to pay for the ripped jeans since she was warned that she was trying on the wrong size. The woman huffed and yelled and kept blaming the brand for poor construction. At the end the customer stormed out without paying saying that the customer is always right.

How about the abusive returners, the ones that don’t care about your return policy? The ones that it’s obvious they’ve worn the merchandise. Most lingerie stores have a “no return” policy on panties and swimwear unless they have the sanitary protection intact. Yet the customer insists they haven’t worn them. With high-end lingerie and corsets we have been noticing a trend that the customer wears it for a night then returns it or even exchanges it for another item. Basically, you can say they are renting the garment. One solution is to make large hang tags the size of half a sheet of paper with the return policy printed on it. We think a fair return policy is 14 days with tags and receipt for full refund or credit. But anyone can buy a tag gun and retag the garment to return. One trick we have developed is to use a custom color for the tag- bright pink, electric blue or any neon color. They take about 6 weeks to special order. We have had customers return garments retagged with the clear tag you can pick up at any stationary store and argue that that’s the way they bought the garment, even when the salesperson points out all the other garments with the colored tag.

Customers who have been refused a return have contacted their credit card company and asked for a dispute in which the credit card company charges back the retailer until a full explanation of the situation is given. The credit card company has the final say on who’s right and most times they side with the consumer, leaving the retailers without the merchandise and without the payment.

Social media is also a tool of revenge for the disgruntled customer. On Yelp, a popular rating service, it’s very easy for anyone to post a negative remark about your store. If you want to defend the statement you need to do it online and public; the part I don’t understand you must post with a personal photo of yourself or Yelp won’t publish your answer. Another thing about Yelp is that the positive comments are often taken down since they “may not be credible”.
Then there is PayPal which has become a very popular form of accepting payments. We had a situation where the person had “forgotten” they had taken a workshop with us and disputed the amount with PayPal. Without asking for our side of the story, PayPal reversed the charges. We contacted the customer; he recalled taking the workshop, so he contacted both his credit card company and PayPal. PayPal took 180 day’s to refund us the payment even though the customer contacted them directly. It took a few hours for PayPal to reverse the charges and 180 days for us to be reimbursed.

So is the customer always right? The answer is no. We need to set up policies and guidelines but we also have to empower our employees to make a decision. We can’t be so liberal with returns as the department stores. They get incentives and credit back from the vendors which off sets the cost of accepting unsellable returns. Our business is that of nickels and dimes and we must watch every cent even if it means “firing” some of our customers.

Mercedes Gonzalez
Director of Global Purchasing Company