Is The Customer Number Two?

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“The Customer is Number One.” Isn’t that the golden rule of customer service? If you have a business or work for one, you’re only there to serve your customers. They are your real employer because they fund the payroll. 


“The customer is always right.” That’s another pillar of customer service. The phrase was attributed first to Marshall Field, who operated an upscale Chicago department store bearing his name.  A different version builds on the first. “The customer isn’t always right, but he’s always the customer.” In other words, even when the customer is wrong, he still deserves respect and consideration.  


A recent Letter to the Editor in the New York Times by Jay Feldman of Port Washington, New York, gives an interesting twist to the old customer service perspective. The letter, entitled, "Invitation to Dialogue: The Corporate Citizen,” discusses the shift in focus to pleasing shareholders with profitability instead of the customer.  Is Corporate America changing the time-honored slogan to “The Shareholder is Number One?”


What is causing the shift and short-changing the customer? Feldman points to several factors.


  1. Abandoning the Mission. Many companies take great care in crafting a punchy mission statement that will rally the troops and inspire customers and shareholders. What Feldman decries in his letter is the shift away from those lofty goals and pledge of customer satisfaction to a laser focus on the bottom line and keeping investor’s happy. This new emphasis may keep the money guys happy, but make the customer feel shortchanged. 
  2. The economy. In order to increase profits, corporations are shortchanging another customer—their employees who are internal customers as well. Need to improve profitability? Cut costs, like benefits, salaries and positions. Layoffs, downsizing and eliminating benefits may make the bottom line look better, but takes a toll on morale and the employee’s buying power. Employees are also consumers, so cutting back on employee benefits is actually a double-edged sword.
  3. Technology. Who hasn’t been confronted with an automated phone answering system that puts you through a maze of options and questions that made sense to the techie who designed it but is confusing to the customer? In order to talk to a human being you have to give the same list of information to an automated cyber-agent several times, navigate a complicated set of prompts, hope you pushed the right button and then give the information over again. Is this real service?  Who is it serving? It’s a little insulting to be told, after several minutes navigating the automated system, that you should first go the company’s website to get your question answered. Cheaper for the company, but frustrating for the customer. Companies can take a lesson from the General Electric Answer Line, where you get a real person on the first dial. 
  4. Outsourcing. Moving a customer service call center overseas may be cheaper, but what happened to corporations being good citizens? In this economy, a job is a job. Call centers may not pay well or provide the most stimulating work environment, but they're a start. Thousands of jobs may help a foreign country, but in this economy, they are also welcome at home in the USA. The unemployed and under-employed are consumers, too.


Feldman asks for a return to corporate responsibility and a renewed sense of community. Corporations should consider a return to responsible corporate citizenship making customer satisfaction priority Number One.


Image by David Castillo Dominici /


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  • Mary Nestor-Harper
    Mary Nestor-Harper
    Hello all,I am blown away by the intensity of the comments!  The pressure companies put on employees who are trying to help their customers is distressing.  I have noticed that when I call a helpline for service, the call either begins or ends with a sales pitch.  Another call yesterday ended with the rep telling me I had to file my complaint in writing.  Talk about going back in time.  I applaud all you customer service reps who take complaints all day long and do your best to help customers despite the lack of support from the company.  
  • joni h
    joni h
    Comcast is number 1 in abandoning the customer --the tech support goal is even to sell or get the customer off the phone.  How I long for the really good ole days!  I am an employee and the stress on handling time and selling is unreal but was hired for tech support.
  • Rusti L
    Rusti L
    I too am in agreement with this article. 40+ years as CSR for various companies I to have seen the decline of customer service being a ‘strong asset’ to companies. In the past I have continued to ‘treat the customer as I would want to be treated’ and always follow through. This however has changed as corporations no longer value that attitude; I was fired from my last position for ‘taking too long with the customers’, this is after I had been there for 20 months. I can only hope corporations will wake up and see that customer service/satisfaction is what drives their bottom line.
  • Violet M
    Violet M
    I totally agree with all of this article. I have been a Customer Service Rep for over 25 years, and I really believe that companies don't care about its customers or the stress that being a CSR puts on the employee. I am a firm believer that Customer Service is an attitude,when you are under appreciated ,and your benefits and salary don't meet the job criteria, it's not only disheartening it affects the job performance. Companies need to remember without customers they have no business or shareholders . Treat employees well and that will project to your customers, customer retention is key, then everyone wins.
  • Jay B
    Jay B
    It's about time SOMEBODY recognized that EVERYONE is a potential customer. By freezing or reducing an employee's wages or salary, you are also reducing his/her ability to patronize the firm they work for. An employee who is also a customer can also advertise your product(s)/service(s) to other prospective customers. And also true, bringing outsourced jobs back stateside would create millions of entry-level jobs, and bring down the unemployment numbers, reducing (in a perfect world) sole dependency.
  • Laura R
    Laura R
    I work for a major retail company and have noticed these things happening over time. Customers are actually surprised when I take a few minutes to help them and show them where things are.We do get in trouble for "liking the customers too much". Too much time spent on the customer is frowned upon.
  • Lisette C
    Lisette C
    In my career a lot of it has consisted of booking appointments and  training others to do this job. I always am very aware and courteous that it may be an inconvenient time for me to be calling? Sometimes on a call the response can be quite rude. I do not take this personally. I do not know what is happening on the other end. However when I make a call to a Company and go through a long robot round and then get dropped off it is exasperating. Where are the humans?
  • Elisabeth K
    Elisabeth K
    I so thoroughly agree with this article. I have been with a retail company that continually cut back on its customer service despite that being the best access to their product and customer retention. It amazes me how shortsighted businesses are nowadays.Recently, I have been in several Walgreen's stores that were way understaffed, to the point where they had customers waiting in long lines. Personally I think the reasons companies are giving for not hiring are bogus...they are just trying to maximize their bottom lines at the expense of their employees who are being worked beyond what is healthy for minimum salaries. I say "shame on them"
  • Mary Nestor-Harper
    Mary Nestor-Harper
    Thanks for the comments.  Let's hope the ladies and gentlemen in the executive suite are reading and change direction to honor the customer first.Mary
  • robert S
    robert S
    The customer is your source of growing your your service or sales to be a successful growing business.The process of Marketing a product or service  is your life line Sustainability and great customer service is a key to your environment.Hiring people and training employees can be the most significant key to a successful business.
  • Marcia C
    Marcia C
    Customers are number one.  Being genuine, down-to- earth, humble, soft spoken and doing the right thing with follow-through.  Pleasing people is a developed art.  Service with a smile and positive attitude is a good thing.
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