A couple of months ago, I was eating at a popular fast food joint, during the lunch rush. A commotion at the billing counter turned out to be a furious customer, yelling at the cashier. What happened, you ask?

The customer had specifically asked for large fries and a beverage without ice, but there was ice in the beverage anyway. The customer threw down the cup and demanded both a refund and a replacement meal on the house. The staff complied with both demands, but the customer still left looking furious. 

What went wrong here? 

Probably several things. But to focus on just one piece of the puzzle, who was wrong in this situation? Let’s consider a few of the ways we get angry customers before we move on with this question.

-You made a mistake, and the customer was unforgiving about it. 
-Something happened that you couldn’t fix, and the customer is upset that it’s not fixed. 
-You didn’t do anything wrong, and the customer is just being unreasonable. 

In any of these circumstances, should you still stick with “the customer is always right”? 

In the fast food joint scenario above, it was the company’s mistake, and they did what they could to fix it. While the customer was right in asking for a refund, it was wrong for him to insult the employees, make a mess, and hold up the line. When that happens, the manager needs to take action—letting such behavior slide has negative effects in the long run for everyone, including the customer.  

How does it affect your customers?

– They conclude that they can continue to be rude and get away with it.

An angry customer is not the same as an unreasonable one. But when both converge, it’s a nightmare to handle. When a company gives in to the demands of unreasonable and rude customers, they walk away feeling that they can continue this sort of behavior. This may come as a shock—but your company can do without such customers. They are impossible to please, never recognize your efforts, and will never recommend you to anyone. Losing such a customer offers more benefits than trying to keep them.

– Other customers are being inconvenienced while you tend to one irate customer, hampering your efforts to make good customers happy.

If one angry customer is stopping your reps from paying attention to other customers, they ruin the experience of others who actually like your service. Though the other customers might empathize with you, they’re still going to go back home feeling unsatisfied.

What about the employees?

– They might start to feel like they have zero rights.

Dealing with rude customers and being nice to them no matter what—that takes a lot of effort. Difficult customers put your employees under a lot of pressure. It’s a tad easier if they feel like their employer values them, though. If your reps know that in a tough situation, they are allowed to say ‘no’ to the customer, they feel more empowered and trusted. Your employees represent you and your company, and they show your customers courtesy and respect. Therefore, they deserve respect and courtesy from the customers too. 

"Kindness Cafe, Singapore"

Kindness Cafe, Singapore

– They might end up losing their temper. 


Your employees are human too. You can tell them not to take angry customers personally, but that’s easier said than done. When pushed too far, they might lose their cool and yell back. This means disaster. Always intervene when the customer starts throwing personal insults. Support your employees and ask the customer to calm down. Let them know (politely) that threats and foul language towards your reps will not be tolerated. 

– They might direct their anger elsewhere, which affects the overall work environment.

An employee who’s just been yelled at is likely to spend the rest of the day feeling pretty bad. They might have less patience than usual and be more likely to snap at a co-worker if something minor goes wrong. They might withdraw and not engage in regular workplace conversation, which can make the entire office feel less comfortable.

So how can you use the “customer is always right” approach sensibly?

– Kill them with kindness (not literally).

Being polite with rude customers has its subtle perks. For instance, it can make the customers feel ashamed of how they behaved when they reflect upon it later. It may not stop them from yelling at you today, but they might think twice before they do it the next time. If you’re lucky, like this Starbucks barista, they might even come back and apologize: 

A Starbucks location was out of drink carriers, and the barista wouldn’t take a customer’s own carrier because it would have been a health code violation. The customer was infuriated and yelled at the barista, who remained polite and courteous throughout. It certainly paid off. The next day, the customer came back with a gift and a letter of apology.

"Apolodon't "

Apology Letter to a Starbucks Barista!

The note which began: ‘Greetings Starbucks Barista!’, read: Yesterday at your drive thru we had a less than cheerful encounter. At no fault of yours, you were out of carriers and said you could not take my empty cup (trash).


‘I was less than understanding and my manner was curt. I need to apologize. The thought of leaving a trail of unkindness like that is not the path I want to reflect. Not for you, not for me. You are a young man, clearly working hard to build a fortune and you should be commended.

‘Keep your attitude of cheer and hope. Stay hopeful no matter what kind of people cross your path (or drive thru.) Surely God has good blessing in store. You taught this ole lady something yesterday about kindness, compassion and staying humble. I thank you!’
– Apolodon’t. 

There is an ongoing debate in customer service circles. If you’re not at fault, should you apologize or not?

One school of thought says that an apology when you’re not at fault is an admission of guilt and it will egg the customer on to blame you and treat you badly. The other school of thought says that apologizing might cool the customer down and make them go away faster.
It’s possible that both of these theories are right. Our only advice is, don’t be too liberal with those apologies. Tell the customer you understand how they feel. Give them more details about why their request can’t be accommodated. Be courteous and polite, but don’t apologize if it’s not required.

– Invite their help finding a solution.

Offer the customer an alternate solution, or get them involved by asking them what they would like you to do. This deflects their anger toward more logical thinking. It might also make them realize that they are being unreasonable.  

– But accept that it is part of your job. 

You’re going to have tough customers sometimes; it’s what you’re there for. When you’re dealing with people, it’s always going to be a rollercoaster. But when you’re the face of a company and your employees look up to you, you have to always act cool. On the bright side, there are ways to vent your stress after it’s over. If you don’t have a pillow to scream into, you can always try the supply closet; the staples won’t tell anyone what you said.

To help you find the strength to get through such sticky situations, we refer you to this wise Redditor who said, “They’re not really shouting at you since they don’t even know you, they’re just shouting at the guy at the cash desk, for all they know.”

When they say that the customer is always right, it doesn’t mean that the customer is always right. It means that you should give them the benefit of the doubt and act as if they’re right — as long as they’re being reasonable about it. If they get abusive, though, it’s not always right to give them their way. The customer may be right, but your employees still have rights.

Is that too many “rights”?

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