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I am a customer service snob, and I think I have the right to be. I have worked enough retail and hospitality jobs – and now public relations, arguably the ultimate in customer relations – to know the customer is always right (even when they are very, very wrong.) From flustered customers misdirecting frustrations to mall rats trying to swindle some free goods, at the end of the day, as long as the customer is smiling, you’ve done your job.

Well, not anymore.

While companies still hold this to be true within their policies and jurisdiction, social media has made it very clear who decides who is “right” and who is “wrong” – the public. If the public doesn’t agree with a (publically known) customer/company interaction, the balance between appeasing the customer and opposing public can be a difficult task.

Two examples of customer service related judgment calls with two different viral outcomes.

Ex. 1 – Earlier this month, patrons at a restaurant in Houston requested to move tables so they were farther away from a boy with Down syndrome. The waiter overheard one of the complaining customers say a degrading remark about the 5-year-old and refused to serve them. The story went viral; the restaurant’s Facebook page exploded with praise and the waiter is now being called a hero.

Ex. 2- A customer at a St. Louis Applebee’s who was displeased with the automatic 18 percent gratuity (required for large parties) decided to leave her own “tip” (heh) by crossing out the amount and writing “I give God 10 percent, why do you get 18?” Another employee posted the receipt to Reddit, where the Internet soon sided with the stiffed waiter. What happened after that is one of every social media manager’s worst nightmares.

Applebee’s fired the employee who posted the receipt, thus fueling the angry mob. After a series of seriously bad decisions – from citing rules the company’s Facebook page already blatantly ignored to deleting or hiding any unfavorable comments (the holy no-no of social media crises control) – Applebee’s found themselves in a full blown crises.

Some customer's thoughtful responses.

Take a moment to read the whole fiasco here. It’s a good read. We’ll wait.


Welcome back – What did you think? I know, right?!?

There is a lot of “shoulda, coulda” talk surrounding Applebee’s. It’s no wonder; this has been possibly the worst handled communications crises in the History of Social Media, Vol. I. Responses posted at odd hours, in odd places, being defensive and accusing. Applebee’s obviously didn’t have a social media crises plan; something we’ve stressed should be in place before it is needed.

Two customers-vs.-staff member-vs.-restaurant situations gone viral, two very different outcomes. Of course the nature of the offenses dictates the public’s response – while not always black and white, some incidents are easier to decide who is “right” as in the case of the waiter standing up for the boy. Religious comments, on the other hand, can make people all sorts of crazy and uncomfortable.

But rather than discuss the philosophy of it all or make some moot suggestions of what Applebee’s could have done better, I ask you:

Is the customer still always right, even when the public says he’s wrong?

Stephanie Lough
Stephanie Lough
A former HMA Public Relations employee.


  1. mattbeaty says:

    I submit that the customer is definitely NOT always right! Businesses that work hard to maintain a high level of service have every right to deny that service to anyone. Some people just aren’t worth the pain and suffering involved, especially when those people don’t pay on time or don’t see the value in your product or service.

    Sometimes, asking people to leave (and not come back), while sticking by your employees and your ability to work with the clients you choose can make all the difference.

    • Stephanie Lough says:

      I agree – sometimes the the whole “customer is right” policy shouldn’t be taken so literally. In this day and age where almost no behavior goes undocumented, a customer that leaves such a note – obviously intended to make some sort of point – should realize there is a chance for backlash.

      I think I speak for a lot of people that whenever I see a server mistreated or a customer be inappropriate that I feel for the person trying to do their job. It always makes for an uncomfortable atmosphere for the parties involved and the other patrons.

  2. Stefanie says:

    This is a great post, Stephanie! I definitely agree with you that good service means the customer leaves with a smile. I too have worked a number of hospitality jobs and was server for more years than I would like to admit. I think that this whole situation has definitely been blown way out of proportion. For the record, the server DID receive the 18% automatic gratuity, the guest wrote that note in the “additional gratuity” line.

    I am very conflicted when thinking about who is was “right” in this situation. The grown-up part of me thinks that servers in general are very selfish – you chose to work in an industry that does not have a standard hourly pay rate and you leave your fate up to the public. Usually this is a great situation, however you do come across people who aren’t willing to pay you for the quality of service you performed. If you aren’t going to be able to take the highs with the lows you should probably chose a different industry.

    The ex-server in me is totally fired up about this! Fine, you didn’t want to leave any additional gratuity, but did you have to be so self-righteous about it? That was a pretty rude comment to leave, why did it have to get so nasty? What did she expect to happen in the age of Instagram, Twit Pics, mobile uploads, etc?

    Again, loved this post – very thought provoking!

    • Stephanie Lough says:

      Thanks for reading, Stef!

      I agree, serving, like any job, has a lot ow of highs and lows and some days you just have to accept things go wrong and move on. Servers can make great money, but should also recognize that they need to earn 20 percent and should expect less as a standard.

      That being said, I think everyone in this situation was wrong – the server who posted it, the customer for writing it and the restaurant for having no idea how to handle the situation. Perhaps the only innocent person in this is the server who received the note!

  3. Scott Hanson says:

    In our industry, dealing with various client (customer) issues, they are not always right. In fact, we are sometimes brought on board to tell them just that — that they aren’t right.

  4. Awesome post, Stephanie! I think we are all human, and while people in the service industry to do their best to pacify situations, they shouldn’t pander to inappropriate behavior. That’s where great management comes in — having the ability to make the tough calls about where to draw the line. I admire managers who can deftly respect all parties involved.

    • Stephanie Lough says:

      I’m thinking there is some kind of follow up to this post with the whole Crazy Amy’s Baking debacle – what happens when you decide the customer is NEVER right (which, unfortunately, might mean getting a reality show!)

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