A young woman in an apron is berated by two angry customers. One of the customers is sitting and gesturing with one hand; the other customer, a man with a beard, is standing and holding an empty coffee cup. The waitress in the apron is centered in the picture. She looks at the standing man with a worried grimace on her face.
If you think a customer is bullying your employees or complaining unnecessarily, don't hesitate to step in and support your staff. — Getty Images/fizkes

The phrase “the customer is always right” has endured for more than 110 years and was originally used in 1909 by a London department store founder to promote the store’s customer service. This phrase has become so ubiquitous that some companies have founded their entire business model on it.

However, in reality, the customer is sometimes wrong. And understanding where to draw the line with a tricky customer will help you earn your employees’ respect, protect your business, and save yourself time and stress. Here are a few instances where the customer isn’t always right, and how to approach these sticky situations.

When the customer is harassing your employees

Customers are vital to your business, but without your employees, you may not have a business at all. Taking a stand to protect your employees can win their respect, and signal to other customers that you stand by your values.

Robert D. Sollars, author of Unconventional Customer Service: How To Break the Rules and Provide Unparalleled Service, spoke to tEDmag about a time he was working as an operations supervisor for a large national security company. At the time, a client demanded that Sollars fire an employee due to their race.

“I told him that was illegal and I wouldn’t do it,” said Sollars. “The client then contacted the branch manager and the account manager and the deed was done, although the reason for the termination was ‘unruly behavior and disturbing female employees in the parking lot.’”

Sollars’ example is extreme, but it illustrates an important instance where business owners should draw the line. The customer is wrong when they create a negative, discriminatory, toxic workplace for you and your team.

[Read more: How to Handle Negative Customer Reviews]

Taking a stand to protect your employees can win their respect, and signal to other customers that you stand by your values.

When the customer is looking for a free handout

Some customers will never be satisfied. "Constant complainers" and "barnacles" are two particularly prickly types of customers who can turn a situation toxic fast. Constant complainers like to share their opinion with you regularly, while barnacles are customers who are likely just looking for a free handout.

These are people who love to voice their criticism, whether valid or not. Treat their concern or complaint with empathy and patience, and know a lost cause when you see one. Some customers might be looking to take advantage of your generosity or kindness, and you need to protect yourself and your business from those barnacles. If a customer won’t accept a fair resolution to their complaint, move on.

[Read more: Want to Build Better Customer Relationships? Make This Change to the Way You Talk to Customers]

When the customer is misinformed

As a business owner, you’re likely an expert in your field, knowing your product, service, and industry inside and out. A customer won’t necessarily understand why your business offerings are framed the way they are. There’s a reason why you don’t accept returns, don’t offer customization, or can’t provide same-day delivery.

As the expert in your business, it’s important to communicate why your store policies exist. Lucas Horton, owner of Valeria Fine Jewelry in Dallas, told tEDmag that he has learned to be transparent throughout the jewelry design business to avoid conflict later on. Horton walks every buyer through his designs, gets a sign-off (in writing), and shares every step in the process. This helps share his knowledge and keep the customer informed, so there’s no opportunity for unexpected disagreement.

Ultimately, being transparent about why your store policies and procedures exist can help manage customer expectations and lead to an overall better customer experience. Not everyone should be your customer: Every individual has different tastes and preferences. Informing someone of your store policies in a respectful way can help ensure you’re serving the right people with the right product or service.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published May 10, 2022