The old adage “the customer is always right,” isn’t always right, according to some marketers. Many customers have unreasonable expectations, unrealistic demands and some become downright unruly — one just has to see the published articles and videos about fighting airline passengers, with the Federal Aviation Administration reporting 3,271 incidents unruly behavior by passengers since the beginning of 2021.

While the FAA reports are the extreme examples, customer service agents, retail salespeople and other customer-facing employees often face issues of customers seeking waived fees, discounts, the ability to return used merchandise for full credit and similar demands.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, two-thirds of consumers surveyed in 2020 said they had experienced a problem with a product or service, up from 56% in 2017, when the survey was last conducted. And 58% weren’t satisfied with how the complaint was handled.

But while some complaints are legitimate, some are not. In many instances the demands for refunds, discounts, etc., are unreasonable, according to frontline staff.

This is a part of doing business. The challenge for companies is to have a system in place to consistently approve or deny such customer requests.

Related Article: How to Communicate Bad News to Customers

Consider Customer Value

“‘The customer is always right,’ is what people want to say and hear,” said Vivek Astvansh, assistant professor of marketing at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. “But a company’s frontline staff — particularly customer service agents or salespeople — would tell you how unreasonable customers can be and how pervasive this behavior is.”

Yet, what is unreasonable for an agent or a salesperson is likely reasonable for a customer. This is why a company needs to write and display what customer requests it will honor, which ones it will not honor, and what requests are subject to the staff’s discretion, said Astvansh. Discretion is where most problems arise. For example, a retailer accepts product returns within 30 days of purchase. If the product is delivered to the customer or the customer picked up the product up from the store two weeks after the purchase, would it be reasonable for the customer to demand that the 30-day period begin from the date of delivery or the date of pick up and not the date of purchase?

“From a strategic or policy standpoint, the company needs to decide how much cost it is willing to incur to retain a customer, Astvansh said. “This decision changes with time and the company must revisit it, each quarter. The policy should then decide the operational-level decisions. A customer service or store salesperson could refer to the policy and decide whether the lifetime value of the customer exceeds the cost that the bank is willing to incur to retain the customer.”

Offer Workers Scripts

In order to determine how to proceed with a situation, employees need to be able to identify whether or not the customer truly is wrong,” said Mark Pierce, CEO of Wyoming Trust. “Provide scripts to help diffuse the situation. Many employees aren’t fully prepared to deal with difficult customers, so providing them with scripts to use in a variety of situations can help them remain in control of the situation. This also helps them clearly, calmly, and diplomatically [explain] why the customer isn’t right.”

Learning Opportunities

Have rules for when a manager or supervisor gets involved, Pierce added. Too often employees get stuck dealing with a difficult customer longer than they should, which simply exacerbates the situation. “There needs to be a clear flow chart in place that illustrates when an employee should bring in a manager or supervisor. The chart should illustrate a variety of situations where it is and isn’t appropriate to involve a manager,” Pierce said.

Bringing a manager or supervisor in early rather than later can improve relations with a customer who isn’t right, according to Pierce. While they still won't be happy, eventually they’ll have to listen to the manager, whereas they can continue to ignore and be belligerent towards an employee indefinitely.

Communicate Clear Terms of Service

“While we try our best to keep everyone happy, it's also important to stand your ground especially when the requests and complaints are unreasonable,” said Ian Sells, co-founder and CEO of RebateKey. “It's really important to have clear terms of services (TOS). Everything should be laid out in there, so that once they commit a violation, it would be easy to point them out to your TOS. However, most of the time, TOS are kept in a place where people don't see them or mindlessly scroll over them.”

Clearly communicate the terms of service with customers multiple times — in their signup process, in the welcome email, etc.

Create a Scale of Behavior

By creating a “scale of behavior,” a company helps employees clearly identify which customer behaviors fall into the reasonable/unreasonable categories. This helps an employee judge in the moment what their response should be, according to the company's policies, said Jessica Zhao, the CMO of Spacewhite.

“Train your employees to shut down interactions when they feel unsafe,” she added. “It's vital that a company have a policy which enables employees to feel supported when ceasing interactions in which they feel unsafe, and, if needed, calling security. A company should always be behind their employees in judging the safety of interactions.”

It’s also important to track how well employees are adhering to company policies, added Zhao, who recommends incident reports for this purpose. If employees aren’t following company policies for handling customer demands, further training is warranted.