Decades ago, when I was entrenched in total quality management (TQM) and service quality, everyone seemed to be hynoptized by the concept of “the customer is always right”. The war cry of the day at that time, especially by frontline managers and task managers, was to bark down at frontliners to deliver service with the motto of “the customer is always right”.

Fast forward to the 21st century, lots of things have changed. Technology has empowered just about anybody to find information quickly, and to reach out to people real-time. Anyone can connect to another by the click of the mouse or a swipe on the tablet or smartphone. Anyone can exchange ideas or communicate feelings through social media or mobile apps.

So, is the customer always right? More correct, has the idea “the customer is always right” even “right” to begin with?

Think with me for a minute, the conundrum of the concept of “the customer is always right”.

Now, the customer is not just the external paying customer who pays a service or product provider. The customer is also your internal employees who serve external paying customers. The customer is also your internal employees who are served internally. They don’t even pay you. In fact, you may be paying them and yet they are too, your customers. The customer is also external shareholders, who believe in your company enough to buy shares of your company (if your company is listed on the stock exchange). The customer may also be external stakeholders, which can be non-profits and beneficiaries of your corporate social responsibility programs, or even the journalists from the media, who benefit from your news now and then.

In short, the customer is not just external paying customers, but just about anyone we have a dealing with, and have a commercial or social exchange with.

Therefore, if the customer is “always right”? Do we restrict it to apply only to external paying customers? What about our employees who are valuable people who create value by serving paying customers and internal employees alike? They too, are customers. What about the journalists and broadcast producers? They are valuable customers who we need to engage consistently and truthfully, so that our corporate brand continues to fly high. Likewise, our shareholders are valuable customers too. Their belief in our company will ensure its continued survival for the long haul.

Imagine if we insist only external paying customers are “always right”, our internal employees will fight low morale all the time and staff turnover will be raging and our processes will fail. And if we insist our internal employees are “always right”, then our paying customers, external stakeholders such as the media and shareholders, will be antagonized. You get the picture.

It is akin to a marriage. If the wife insists on being right all the time, the husband will walk out of the marriage. And vice versa, if the husband insists he is right all the time, the wife will insist on a divorce soon after.

How then, can we embrace customer service in a more enlightened manner? The simplest way to look at it is to approach the idea of marriage again.

Is the husband always right? No. Is the wife always right? No. Is insisting who is right all the time the key issue to a successful marriage? Certainly not! Then, what is? The key issue is mutual respect. When the husband respects the opinions and actions of the wife, and the wife does the same for the husband, the likelihood of a sustainable marriage will be there. Think of customer service as akin to a nice waltz or tango between the married couple. When one of them moves forward, the other steps back, and vice versa. It is poetry.

Likewise, it is never important to insist who is right in customer service. The paying customer is never “always right”. The internal employees or external stakeholders are never “always right”. The key issue is to have a culture of mutual respect between all parties. The comapny respects the external suppliers to pay bills on time when receiving goods and services. The internal employees respect peers, paying customers and external stakeholders. Likewise, like ladies and gentlemen, the external paying customers are recommended the same corporate culture so that they will provide the same mutual respect for the internal teams. In this closed loop of enlightened customer service, mutual respect for all parties is the guiding light, and not an insistence of “who is right”.

Kill the idea that the customer is always right. Instead, inculcate a culture of mutual respect that allow external paying customers, external stakeholders (shareholders, media and suppliers), internal customers, are all given fair and equal footing. This is the enlightened customer service that is sustainable.

After all, Mencius (372-289 BCE), student of Confucius, believed that humans are different from animals, and possess benevolence for others. Mencius said, if a child falls, it is the inner nature of a human to feel sympathetic towards the child. Therefore, unless external and internal factors prevent a person from being respectful to another, it is the tendency of a person to be respectful to others. Respect begets respect, and this is the highest form of customer service.