Is the old retailers' maxim valid today?

The customer is always right.   (Always?)

Conrad Weisert, April 3, 2011
ŠInformation Disciplines, Inc.

NOTE: This document may be circulated or quoted from freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.
"Le client n'a jamais tort."—César Ritz
"Give the lady what she wants."—Marshall Field

"Bricks and mortar" traditions

Early twentieth century business leaders understood that their long-term interest was best served by avoiding disputes with their customers. If a customer was unreasonable, unpleasant, or even in some cases marginally dishonest, employees of high-end retailers were instructed to comply "cheerfully" with the customer's request for exchange, refund, or other satisfaction.

Today's "big box" retailers rarely go that far, but they still offer limited return policies. You probably won't be able to get a refund on a gift that's been in your closet for two years or a piece of luggage that bears stickers from a resort hotel, but merchandise that's defective or that you just don't like, will usually be accepted within a reasonable time. A "restocking" fee is sometimes applied if the original sealed carton has been opened.

"'High tech" impact

César Ritz and Marshall Field never imagined dealing with unseen customers over a "help" line. Modern computer hardware and software products, now often sold without adequate manuals, often place their users in situations where they must call on an expert for assistance. They may do so either by telephone to a vendor-staffed "help" line or, once they have a working Internet connection, through an on-line Help facility designed by the vendor. When do we need such help?

  1. Sometimes the assistance is needed for tutorial purposes, to guide the customer through some part of the installation process or product use, either because:
    1. the documentation is incomplete or incomprehensible
    2. or the customer didn't bother to study it.
  2. Too often, however, we need assistance to diagnose and circumvent a malfunction or bug in the product.

Three questions arise with respect to the service:

User-Group Influence

User influence on major hardware and software reached its peak with the SHARE organization, launched a half century ago by organizations that had IBM mainframe computers. Although IBM provided some support1, SHARE was managed and operated by volunteers from their customer organizations.

SHARE exerted a major influence on IBM's direction in large-scale computing. The user organization didn't always get its way, but when SHARE passed a formal resolution, IBM was obliged to respond. One of the many early successes is reported on this web site.

Today there are many user groups, but few of them exert independent influence on the vendors. In many cases, the vendor controls the meeting agendas, provides the meeting facilities, and emphasizes promotional presentations.

Furthermore the user community's economic leverage has fallen drastically. IBM would listen to companies that owned or rented a $2 million mainframe. Do today's vendors pay the same attention to a company that has a half dozen Windows computers? A few huge companies and government agencies could exercise such influence if they wanted to, but so far the will to do so isn't there.


1—Mostly people as representatives to various SHARE committees. IBM also paid for coffee served during the breaks and for the distribution of SHARE library programs.

Last modified April 14, 2011

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