Is the customer always right ?

We've all encountered them at some point during a night out at a restaurant. Perhaps they were sitting at the table next to us, or even at our table.

We’re talking about entitled customers. Those customers who act as if they have a right to better and faster service than the rest of the patrons. Customers who repeatedly ignore or speak condescendingly to the person carrying multiple dishes to their table. Customers who choose to disregard a company’s rules and regulations that are set in order for its operations to run smoothly.

Even if they make other customers feel slightly uneasy at their presence,  it is not uncommon for businesses to adopt the outdated belief that “the customer is always right”. As a result, based on this unwritten and, in some ways, unreasonable rule, they respond to all customer requests in the best way possible. The end goal is to keep the customer satisfied. To avoid losing the customer. But how beneficial is holding on to this belief in reality?

Α Tacit Agreement.

Let’s take things from the beginning. Reciprocity is a fundamental rule for establishing and developing a professional relationship – in this case, a relationship between a customer and a service company. This relationship is built on an unspoken agreement in which both parties agree to contribute equally for the relationship to develop. On the one hand, the company commits to providing an experience that will have value for the customer, and on the other hand, the customer commits to making good use of the offered service, thereby contributing to the viability of the company. This creates a balanced state in which both parties benefit equally.

However, when one of the parties fails to fulfill their obligations under the agreement, the ‘give and take’ balance is thrown off, potentially leading to the dissolution of the relationship. The ways in which this may occur from the company’s end are more or less well-known: poor product quality, unjustified high pricing, extremely slow service, and so on.

This means that if a customer discovers, for example, that a restaurant does not serve high-quality food, the experience has no value for him. As a result, it is only natural that the customer will not return to this establishment, and he will almost certainly tell others about his negative experience.

But what happens when the customer doesn’t fulfill his obligations?

To answer this question, it is necessary to look into the ways in which a customer no longer contributes to a company’s viability and, by extension, its profitability.

Undesirable Behaviours.

Some customer behaviours are undeniably undesirable for a restaurant business (e.g., when a customer refuses to pay the full amount of the bill).  In these rare scenarios, the terms of the agreement are clearly violated and thus, doing business with these customers evidently does not benefit the company.

Nevertheless, there are also some other, more subtle ways, in which customers can negatively impact the smooth operation of a restaurant. That is, in addition to some extreme behaviours that are scarcely manifested, there are certain imperceptible daily customer behaviours that indirectly, but unquestionably, strongly influence a company’s efforts to provide value to its customers.

Specifically, research conducted within the restaurant industry has revealed that customers frequently exhibit behaviours that negatively impact service personnel. As a result, these customers interfere with the employees’ ability and willingness to provide good service to all customers. In particular, research findings have demonstrated that there are six categories of such customer behaviours, which are presented next, along with some suggested ways of anticipating or responding to them.

Category Description Example Behaviour Indicative Action


Is sarcastic or insulting
Snaps fingers to get the attention of service staff
Use environmental cues to communicate the style of the restaurant
Exhibits deceitful behaviour
Complains about food quality once he has finished his meal
Ask about food quality during the meal
Reacts excessively to service failure
Raises his voice and/or makes a scene for mistakes that can be easily corrected
Service recovery
Does not respect rules and policies
Does not wait to be seated by service staff
Use signage to guide expected behaviour
Delays the service process
Talks on phone while service staff is waiting
Ask customers if they are ready to order
Has demands beyond the employee's role
Asks the employee to fetch something from the grocery store
Response is at the company's discretion

Some of the adverse consequences of these customer behaviours for service staff include:

-on a psychological level: increased anxiety, negative mood, emotional exhaustion;

-on a practical level: decreased overall performance and increased risk of service failure.

As can be seen, certain customer behaviours not only have a  detrimental impact on employees, but also come with negative indirect consequences for all customers. From the management’s point of view, tolerating these behaviours not only encourages them to occur, but it also becomes a bigger problem for a restaurant when other customers suffer as a result of poor service.

Moreover, it is not uncommon for a restaurant to incur additional costs when dealing with high employee turnover due to unfavourable working conditions, or when being called to restore a negative image caused by repeated poor service. So, there are also larger, cumulative consequences of these customer behaviours related to a company’s overall performance and profitability, emphasising the importance of restaurant management taking action.

Managing customer behaviour.

Managers have several tools to use depending on the size, type (e.g., casual, upscale), and resources of the restaurant in order to avoid, or at least minimize, customer undesirable behaviours.

All actions must begin with the acknowledgement that not all customers are created equal, and that undesirable behaviours do exist and can be problematic for the entire company. In other words, there is a need for a shift in company culture and the way customers are perceived in general, by questioning the notion that anything can be done for the sake of customer satisfaction.

Certainly, claiming that businesses can completely eliminate undesirable customer behaviours would be unrealistic. However, through proper management, it is possible to reduce the frequency of their occurrence. In this view, three courses of action are proposed for restaurant managers.

1. Prevention

Even before a company finds itself in the unpleasant and awkward situation of reprimanding a customer for their behaviour, it is best to have ensured that the possibility of it occurring has been minimised. This can be accomplished by employing the appropriate marketing communication tools and tactics.

In general, managing customers’ expectations prior to their visit to a restaurant is good practice to ensure that they do not make unreasonable demands. Restaurants, for example, can use their website to inform customers about the menus they offer, their price list, and other details about their restaurant’s setting.

Service standardization is also an effective way for managing both staff and customer behaviour. Aside from the obvious benefit of ensuring consistent service quality, establishing proper service standards is an excellent way to reduce customer complaints. Service personnel, for instance, can be trained to ask customers about their food during their meal, not to create a false positive impression, but with genuine care and  to proactively identify any potential sources of customer dissatisfaction. Service standardization  also serves another purpose: through the use of scripts, it defines appropriate personnel behaviour, in order to ensure that a professional, courteous demeanour is maintained during all interactions with customers. This, in turn, signals to customers the boundaries of their own behaviour and prevents them from crossing the line into becoming overly demanding or offending.

Finally, environmental cues such as the restaurant’s layout, music selection, or signage can be conducive to creating a positive mood for customers while also informing them about the restaurant’s style and their expected behaviours. For example, putting a sign near the entrance that says “please wait here to be seated” informs customers about the procedures they must respect and adhere to.

2. Empowerment

Depending on the restaurant, the aforementioned customer behaviours may vary and may even include other categories of customers whose behaviours, nonetheless, disrupt the company’s smooth operation.

As a first step, management should solicit input from service personnel in order to identify which behaviours occur more frequently and why they are deemed problematic. As a second step, and through relevant training, service staff should be informed about customer behaviours that require special handling and given specific guidelines for the suggested ways to respond to them.

The goal here is to assist personnel in identifying these customers and, rather than improvising in order to deal with them, to have the necessary knowledge to take initiative and manage them in real-time. For instance, under what circumstances can service employees accommodate special customer requests (e.g., repeat customers)? In what situations should employees seek assistance from management? These are example questions that need to be answered to prepare to respond to different types of customer behaviours.

Similarly, and in the context of empowering its employees, restaurant management should strive to create a supportive work environment through open dialogue. Such an approach helps to boost service staff morale and, as a result, improves the service provided to all customers.

3. Reliability

It would be unfair for a company to make demands on customer behaviour while failing to keep its end of the bargain. Poor cleanliness, poor food quality, a lack of knowledge or politeness on the part of staff, and other factors can all lead to dissatisfaction among even the most tolerant customers. In other words, only a manager who understands the restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses and is respectful of its customer base can determine and evaluate when a customer is right and when he is not. This is the essence of reciprocity.

The silver lining.

On a different note, the same research has revealed the existence of a different type of customer, one who is indeed beneficial to service employees, other customers, and the overall operation of a restaurant. These are the customers who will request to speak with the manager, not to complain, but to compliment the restaurant’s quality. It is those customers who, without any underlying expectation or ulterior motive, boost the morale of the staff, motivating them to perform even better. Those customers will simply say “please” and “thank you” in a meaningful way. And it is with these customers that restaurant management should try to build a relationship.

In conclusion, yes, the customer is always right. However, it is up to the company to determine who that customer will be.

This article was originally written by the author and published in Greek in Foodservice Magazine, issue 147.