The Customer is Always a Tyrant

“The customer is always right.” -Harry Gordon Selfridge

Where does the idea that the customer is infallible come from? Mr. Selfridge coined the term in the early 1900s, and about a hundred years later, the phrase is still with us, and still taken as a truism by many. Selfridge may not have been as successful as other retail magnates, having died penniless, but his contributions to retail strategy can still be seen today.

“Selfridge promoted the radical notion of shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. The store was extensively promoted through paid advertising. The shop floors were structured so that goods could be made more accessible to customers. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Staff members were taught to be on hand to assist customers, but not too aggressively, and to sell the merchandise.” -Wikipedia

As can be seen from the operations of his stores, Selfridge believed that simply putting merchandise on shelves and expecting it to sell was simply not enough. In the same way that modern retail stores have cafes, pharmacies, free samples, optometrists, makeup artist, hair stylists, and manicurists, Selfridge knew that he could make more money by convincing the customer that they were special, that they were important. Would an unimportant person be catered to by such a diverse menagerie of services?

A century later, we are still seeing Selfridge’s legacy, however, unlike the department stores of old, which catered to a somewhat upscale clientele, these practices can be seen across the board. Even lower-end retail chains like Wal-Mart have crammed the front of their stores with everything from auto services to dentists. Not only do these extra services provide extra revenue for the retailer, but they also engender a sense of entitlement amongst many patrons.

“The customer is always an asshole.” -Shannon Hamilton

Anyone who has worked retail has heard the question “Do you know how much money I spend here?” While retailers actively seek the loyalty of customers, the customers have been tricked into thinking that the retailer should have a sense of loyalty towards them. The entire business model has been masked to make those who buy things think that they have any amount of power. We have even come up with the term “service industry” to obscure the fact that it is truly capital who has the power. A hundred years ago, if you had mentioned the phrase “service industry” to someone, they would probably think of the butlers and maids that served the upper classes and aristocrats. Today, the service sector has ensured that instead of an upper crust being serviced, those being serviced now belong to a mass of little aristocrats.

These little aristocrats are not just limited to retail. We are all small-time rulers now. Every restaurant is a castle, and every beauty parlor a fief. Service industry employees must not only be expected to pledge loyalty to the King, the company, but also to the never-ending stream of Lords and Ladies that flow through the doors. Today, more and more people are coming to depend on this pseudo-serfdom to make a living.

“In the United States 70 percent of the workforce works in the service sector; in Japan, 60 percent, and in Taiwan, 50 percent. These are not necessarily busboys and live-in maids. Many of them are in the professional category.” -Kenichi Ohmae

Regardless of one’s position within the hierarchy of the service industry, every service employee is subject to the whims of the customer almost more so than to the company itself. Even CEOs and district managers must occasionally grovel at the feet of an upset customer. While the upper classes refuse to acknowledge that their businesses would not operate without employees, and fight viciously against giving even an inch to their workers, they are quick to satisfy even the most ridiculous of customer requests.

Perhaps the most ridiculous and demanding of service industry environments is the restaurant. Even a basic act like eating gets transformed into an experience in which the customer gets to demand nearly anything, and then decide whether or not those who serve them get compensated for their work.

“The first restaurants began to appear in Paris in the 1760’s, and even as late as the 1850’s the majority of all the restaurants in the world were located in Paris…Before that, people didn’t go out to eat as they do today. Aristocrats had servants, who cooked for them. And the rest of the population, who were mainly peasant farmers, ate meals at home.”

Do you need an extra side of ranch dressing? Sure, pay no mind to the fact that the server just walked back to the kitchen to get someone else at your table an extra side of BBQ sauce. Need a refill? Just slurp loudly at the watery ice at the bottom of your cup while attempting to make eye contact with any employee that will look at you. There is something about the restaurant setting that turns even mild-mannered people into tyrants…the “tip.”

There are few other service environments that put so much power into the customers hands, and as often seen with power, it drives people mad. Very rarely is the livelihood of the employee literally given over to the customer. In many countries, servers make an actual wage, and tipping is unheard of, but in the US, tipping can make the difference between a living wage and destitution. The “tipped minimum wage,” developed in 1996 by Herman Cain, ensures that in most states, employees that receive tips are not entitled to the actual minimum wage. Currently, the federal minimum is $2.13. Some states, like Washington or Oregon, have a minimum above $9.00, which may explain why chains like TGI Fridays have closed all locations in those states.

The “acceptable” tip amount on a meal is 20%, but not a day goes by for most servers that they don’t get stiffed at least once. There are even those that make it a principle to never tip their servers. Whether it is out of ignorance or malice, not tipping someone making significantly less than minimum wage is insulting no matter how inadequate the service may have been. All servers have to “tip out” on their sales, usually about 3%. If a table spends $100 and does not tip, assuming the server is making $2.13 an hour, that means the server literally just paid $0.87 to take care of that table. It is entirely possible to lose money on a table.

While much more stable than front-facing restaurant work, retail is not without it share of pitfalls. The idea of retail is to create a middleman that buys things cheaply from manufacturers or wholesalers, and then marks them up to sell to customers. In the early days of retail, it was not uncommon for sales associates to make commissions, but recent times have seen a trend of businesses going the extra mile to advertise that their associates do not make sales commissions. Instead of giving the employee a monetary incentive to please the customer, they are now given a minimum wage and threatened by both angry customers and secret shoppers.

Secret shoppers are essentially the snitches of the retail world. They go to stores and report the activities of the employees there, in exchange for getting their purchase for free or at a discount. This can mean reporting that a certain employee did not offer to sign them up for a rewards card, or in the case of restaurants, reporting when a server does not card them for alcohol. A bad secret shop can lead to anything from disciplinary action to termination, and employees are kept in a state of constant fear that their next customer might be their last.

Another method that retail pioneered, and is now seeing use by larger restaurant chains, is the customer survey. This essentially gives absolute power to the customer to decide the fate of those who have serviced them. Most surveys go directly to corporate, instead of the older method of complaining to a manager, who actually has a presence in the store. Surveys pit the customers word against the employees, and when “the customer is always right,” the employee can do little to defend themselves. Additionally, the way most corporations have set up their surveys, anything less than a perfect score often counts as negative. Unless a customer gives a 10/10 across the board, surveys are often counted as “detractors.”

With this sort of unwarranted authority given to the customer, they have come to see themselves as deciders of who should shop where. Sites like Yelp provide an open forum for people to complain about the slightest of problems, and often have it show up near the top of search results for a particular business. Take this example from Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles:

“Well, I’ve never even eaten here…….so why, you ask, do I even bother to rate this place? Because I did walk in here, sit down, and read the menu. Then I looked at my friends and said, "There’s no way I can eat this.” It was all grease and fat and a whole buncha yuck jumbled together. NO WAY. I’m just not into that kind of eating or food combinations… NOT appealing to me. So we left…..yet, it’s a local institution of sorts. Oh well.” -Claudia B.

In what world is fried chicken not greasy? Obviously a world where someone that doesn’t even eat at a place is qualified to write a review of it. Not only is this user allowed to write a review, but she is given extra status by Yelp as an elite user, and has written over 700 reviews. Yelp is built for entitled poseur foodies who think their opinion matters, and Yelp is not ashamed of this. Yelp makes money by showing ads to its users, and it is in their best interest to make their users feel as important as possible so that they return to the site and write more reviews to generate more ad impressions.

“Your trust is our top concern, so businesses can’t pay to alter or remove their reviews.” -Yelp

While Yelp may be off limits to business interference, the rest of the internet is not as picky about who reviews what. Sites like Yelp engender a reliance and false trust in the power of customer reviews, and other sites that are not as customer driven take advantage of this trust. The internet is full of sites that sell “fake” reviews, and any business can pay a nominal fee to make themselves look reputable. Many sites that sell things, Amazon for instance, have an obvious vested interest in people buying as much as possible, and of course they will sell more items if they all have five star reviews. Such fake reviews, called “astroturf,” are extremely common on the internet, and play off the customers’ tendencies to trust other “real people.”

“This job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers.” -Randal Graves

Unfortunately, customers are necessary to the functioning of the service industry, and many would be without incomes if everyone were to simply stop buying things. The heightened status of the customer is not necessary, though, and the sooner we can stop putting patrons on a pedestal, the better off we will be. Customers are not the nobles of old, who contributed very little to the productivity of society, and do not deserve to be treated like them. We are all customers, but we do not all have to be tyrants. We can stop the tyrant in ourselves by thinking about the demands we make of those who “serve” us, and by ceasing to make unreasonable demands. We can stop other tyrants by calling them out on their actions. An employee has to sit and smile while they are berated, but everyone is perfectly capable of telling the person in front of them to stop yelling and move on with their lives. It is often said that everyone should have to work a day in the service industry to see how horrible it is, but even this is not necessary. We need to realize that we are nothing but an income source for the service industry, and rid ourselves of any idea that we have any real power over service employees.


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