The Customer Isn't Always Right, Especially When She's Complaining

customer service complaintsWhen it comes to customer service disputes, there's an old adage in the retail industry: The customer is always right.

In reality, of course, the customer is frequently in the wrong, whether it's a matter of misreading a return policy or misunderstanding how to use a product. And unfortunately for put-upon customer service reps, new research suggests that consumers complain the most when they know they're wrong.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia and published this month in the Journal of Marketing Research asked subjects to perform a simple task: Make a smoothie in a blender.

Well, simple except for one small hitch: The blenders provided to the test subjects were in some way defective, making the task impossible. The subjects were asked for feedback, but first they were divided into two groups: one that was made to feel the problem was their fault, and one that was assured it could have been a simple malfunction.

"We'd say [to one group], 'Have you ever done this before? No one else is having problems,' " explains Lea Dunn, who coauthored the paper. To the other group, she recounts, the researchers would be less incriminating, saying things like, 'That's okay, we've had this problem before.'

The results are striking, if not entirely surprising: The subjects who were led to believe that they failed the task due to their own incompetence were defensive and confrontational, insisting that the blender was at fault. Meanwhile, those who were given the "out" of equipment malfunction were more willing to concede that the failure could have been their fault.

"When you think it's your fault that it failed, you protect yourself and shift the blame," says Dunn.

Dunn notes that the research applies primarily to online feedback -- an online customer service survey, for instance, or just an angry complaint made on social media -- and that the effect may be mitigated in person. Still, the implications for customer service interactions are clear. First, the guy complaining loudly about his Ikea furniture or malfunctioning laptop is likely doing so not because he genuinely believes that he got a defective bed or computer, but because on some level, he knows he's at fault.

Just as important, it suggests that customer service operators looking to reach a peaceful resolution would do best to strike a conciliatory tone. "When the company provides an explanation that [suggests] consumers are not at fault, that can mitigate the threat they feel," says Dunn.

In other words, the best approach is the tried-and-true one: The customer is always right, even when she isn't.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

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this is the dumbest study ever--those people in the first group were led to believe it was their fault and it wasn't! I would be confrontational too--I know how to work a blender and make a smoothie!

October 31 2012 at 6:47 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

This study is completely flawed and proves nothing. The customers who were told it was their incompetence were arguing more because they knew it was not their fault, not because they knew they were wrong and were defensive!

October 31 2012 at 6:23 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Mary Beth

I used to work at the returns desk. What was the worst was the instruction "No money back without a reciept". The customer would get angrier and angrier until demanding to see the manager, who invariably strolled out, smiled, and told me to give them the money. Finally I just began to refund the money, and when I was asked why I explained that unless the management supported me in following the store policy there was no point in me taking a lot of abuse. They had no answer and no, I did not lose my job.

October 30 2012 at 10:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Most of the time the customer IS WRONG. They feel they are entitled because they paid for something with their money. Not like the group of lazy buttwipes in this country that feel they are entitled for other people's money.
Customers never read the instructions, don't know the return policies of the stores they shop in and always claim it wasn't their fault. WHen I worked in reatil at a shoe store this is what happened.
A man comes in with his 9 or 10 year old son claiming the shoes just fell apart. The sole was coming loose from the upper and there were scuff marks on the toe and it was well worn. The father claimed that the shoes were bought for school and were ONLY a month old and that they were made "like ****", We always took back shoes no matter what. So I took the father back to the kids department and we found another pair for his son. As I was bagging up the shoes I asked the kid if he skateboarded. He said yes with a big smile on his face. Then I asked him of he dragged his toe to stop and he said yes. I then looked at the father with a so you think you got over on us look. The father just looked down and didn't say a word. HE KNEW I got him. His kid ratted him out. As I handed the father the bag, I looked at the kid and said don't drag your toe to stop yourself. I smiled and then laughed.

October 30 2012 at 10:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's good business to practice..the customer is always right! Saves confrontation and stress. Let it go!!

October 30 2012 at 9:48 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gracieallen234's comment

YOU have never worled in retail.

October 30 2012 at 10:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I don't think this is entirely relevant to the fact that people complain loudly due to the reason that they're at fault. What if someone read this story and then went to a customer complaining loudly that their product broke and truly believed that their product was not functioning correctly as it should. That would of course make the customer likely to get louder, does that mean they're at fault. Yes, people take advantage of big bussinesses by sticking out with stuff like this but it's wrong to say that the loudest person is likely loudest because of their own fault. It might be a mother with a crib that slammed her childs fingers for no specific reason she could deal with. Or it could be a bussiness man in the middle of a presentation when his computer failed. Or it could even be a person with rotten food. Yes most of the time it's the bussinesses fault. I also agree that some, but not as many as assumed by the writer of this article cust, customers do take advatage but you can't make a "study" on that there are wayyy too many variables. It's a crappy experiment as well. If I have been using a blender my whole life I would be offended if someone asked me if I have used a blender in my life. It annoys me just reading this. If my blender didn't work I would try to figure out online or any other type of way then take it back to the manufacturer, and if it is the manufacturers fault it's not what I bought in the first place wasting gas driving back and possibly not even getting a new, I would be annoyed and upset.

October 30 2012 at 7:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I've worked at a phone company for nearly ten years, and everyday people come in with their sob stories as how the big bad phone company did them wrong. I've been called names and people think I can wave a magic wand and take care of their past due bill. They complain about petty things just to argue. Get real people, it's just a phone, not your grandmas life support....

October 30 2012 at 6:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have been in Customer Service over 30 years. Whether or not a Customer is right or wrong should never be the issue. The Customer Service Professional's job is to treat the Customer with respect and Solve the problem .

October 30 2012 at 5:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dianesdesktop's comment

Well said. This study is also faulty. A customer may know very well how to make a smoothie and know very well that it was not their fault. Of course they'd be confrontational when a customer service rep tried to blame them with a condescending attitude. You never know. Sometimes it's better to not fight a customer over something little, give them great service to help them solve the problem, and have them return later to pay more money for other products in the future. There are very few cases where I've had customers demand things that wouldn't give them.

October 30 2012 at 6:13 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Pay your front line people way more they take the abuse of these rude irritating people. Put the execs out there for one day and see how long they could take it. And people, see yourself in the place of the one you are cursing out and abusing. I see one of you again I'll tell you to f off

October 30 2012 at 4:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm amazed at the illogic of this experiment. They tell people who did nothing wrong that something is their fault, seem to be surpised that the customer gets angry and defensive, then conclude that all customers that are angry and defensive are in fact lying. What a load of crap.

October 30 2012 at 4:48 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to LLL's comment

Exactly, I didn't even read your comment and said basically the same thing haha.

October 30 2012 at 7:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply