A Global View of ‘The Customer is Always Right’

“The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.”

That’s a quote from advertising executive David Ogilvy’s 1964 book, Confessions of an Advertising Man.

In the 1950s and ’60s, many brands treated customers like they lacked brain cells and used loud and obnoxious voices and obviously exaggerated print. Ogilvy wanted to point out that companies and advertisers needed to connect with customers and treat them intelligently.

His ideas reflected a notion popularized in the early 1900s: “The customer is always right.”

This attitude was new and influential for its time. Imagine a world where the customer actually had some power? Thanks to social media, today we live in world where the customer may not always be right in your view, but they are armed with social media and can use it as a weapon against you

The customer is always right is a phrase pioneered by Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field. These men were successful retailers and learned early in their careers that the success of their stores depended on the happiness of their customers.

Selfridge, who founded the department store Selfridges in the U.K.; Wanamaker, who opened the first department store in Philadelphia; and Marshall Field, owner of the store Marshall Field and Company in Chicago, owe much of their careers to respecting customers. It’s unclear who was actually the first person to coin the phrase, but it’s definitely an idea they all followed and used to run their businesses. They didn’t actually intend the phrase to mean that the customer was in the right in every situation. Instead, it was a signal that customers were special. Staff were instructed to treat customers as if they were always right, even if it was obvious they weren’t. The change in mindset was a radical shift to how customers were used to being treated, and people flocked to these department stores.

According to a Sears, Robuck, and Co. publication from 1905, “Every one of their thousands of employees are instructed to satisfy the customer regardless of whether the customer is right or wrong.” These retailers knew the power of customers. They believed it’s better to trust customers and risk getting taken advantage of occasionally than to get a reputation of being mean or disrespectful.

Share this post