Kempner: What if ‘the-customer-is-always-right’ is wrong?

Just how much abuse do employers expect their workers to take from customers?

I’ve seen recent accounts of people supposedly being pretty awful to fellow humans on the job.

Like the male business customer who allegedly went on a racist rant against a female employee at an AutoZone store in South Georgia. Supposedly a manager later told the employee to suck it up, then put her out of the job, the now-former employee claims in a suit against the company. AutoZone and the customer both deny at least some of the employee’s account.

You might also have heard about Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones who took to social media to rip a popular Atlanta restaurant: “… Atlanta Fish Market gave me the worse service I’ve EVER gotten. Then instead of the manager coming to make it better, he came and gave me the worse attitude EVER!”)

The restaurant apologized on social media, but later alleged that Jones and her guests were “verbally abusive to two of the nicest people we have in the company,” according to the president of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group.

I didn’t witness the actual events. I don’t know what really happened or who was to blame.

‘Employees are our greatest asset’

These aren’t the only times, though, that customers have been accused of rotten behavior.

The popular saying is that the customer is always right.

But what about “our employees are our greatest asset”?

It’s confrontations like the ones above where bosses are forced to pick which one they believe in more. They have to figure out how much their crews should be expected to stomach from the people they’re serving.

I broached that issue with Ray Pohlman, a spokesman for AutoZone’s parent.

“No, the customer is not always right,” he said. “But at AutoZone we do everything we can to make sure the customer is satisfied.”

He also told me the thing about employees (AutoZoners) being the company’s most important asset.

The former employee is suing the retailer, claiming it discriminated against her on the basis of her race. Pohlman said the company’s position is different than what is portrayed in the lawsuit. He said the employee wasn’t fired; she verbally resigned.

Not entitled to civility

Ian Smith, the former employee’s attorney, said rather than forcing his client out of her job, the company “could have shown some real concern for her well-being” and could have told the customer they weren’t willing to let him subject the employee to abuse.

“An employee is not entitled to a nice customer or even civility and politeness from others,” Smith told me. “But when employees are subjected to racial harassment, the law has drawn that line.”

The suit portrays a pretty ugly scene. The male commercial account customer (which implies a fairly lucrative one), cursed the female employee on a phone call. She hung up. The customer later came into the store and, according to the suit, called the woman “a worthless piece of (expletive).”

“I don’t (know) why y’all have a bunch of (racial epithet) in here that don’t know nothing, and now you have a lady (racial epithet) in here and she really knows nothing.”

I called the customer alleged to have said such toxic stuff in the incident nearly a year ago.

“That woman was completely wrong,” he told me. “If she was not working in that store, I would have beat her ass.… Ain’t no woman ever talk to me like that before in my life…. That’s all I’ve got to say. Have a good day.”

He hung up before I could ask more.

Where to draw the line

Lots of businesses would be wary of a customer teetering on the edge of violence. But how about when customers are just mean and verbally abusive?

“Every company and manager will have their own line that they won’t let their customer cross,” said Mary Jo Bitner, a business professor at Arizona State University, where she helps lead the Center for Services Leadership.

“Sometimes companies do things for customers that bring them a lot of money that they wouldn’t do for other customers.”

Bruce Temkin, who runs a customer experience consulting firm, told me “truly great organizations defend their employees in the face of unruly customers.”

“Companies have to realize that their employees are at least as precious as their customers,” he said. “At the end of the day, it is the commitment and engagement of the employees that creates the environment that allows you to have customers.”

From pistols to profanity

We’re likely to face more of these kinds of challenges. We’re in a big service economy. People are finding all kinds of reasons to distrust others. And then there are the little things.

Like the Zaxby’s customer in Columbus, Ga., who reportedly was so displeased with the size of a chicken finger that he may or may not have retrieved a pistol from his vehicle, according to a news report about the ensuing panic in the store. And there was the customer at another Zaxby’s, this one in metro Atlanta, who apparently wasn’t happy with the amount of seasoning on her fries. Solution? She reportedly threw food containers and punched a monitor on a register.

Hangry? Maybe.

There are ways to try to defuse some of the angriest people among us. I know because I found tips posted online for customer service workers at a water utility in Portland, Oregon.


Apologize, soothe, listen, recap; then problem solve together.

Focus on the positive.

“Remember, it’s usually not personal,” according to the presentation. “You are awesome and you’re doing a great job!”

If that’s not enough, they suggested this: “I’d certainly like to help you, but the profanity is making it impossible. Would you like me to give you a few minutes to gather your thoughts?”

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