Customer service, and how it is perceived, remains at the heart of the hospitality industry. Photo credit: Aadil Naik

Ask around the hospitality industry and the number of stories about customers making unreasonable demands because “they are right” can fill a book. But people have finally started to speak out against the old adage.

The majority of hospitality staff fail to see any merit to the statement ‘the customer is always right.’

“I admire the spirit of it, but not the letter,” said Matthew Winter-Knox, 26, a student in the bartending program at Algonquin College. “The worker is not right or wrong, but generally more knowledgeable.”

“I don’t understand where it comes from,” said Colton Hroncich, 21, a supervisor at Orleans Bowling Centre and a graduate from the business management and entrepreneurship program at Algonquin College. “If you’ve never worked the job, I don’t understand how people think they are right.”

James Keohane, 33, another student in the bartending program at Algonquin College thinks it is also the customer’s belief that an employee needs to “drop everything and focus on them,” that service staff object to, as it is often followed by anger and frustration over the smallest of things.

“Being provided a service is a privilege, not a right,” said Keohane.

While there is almost unanimous rejection of a customer always being right amongst service staff, the feeling is not as universal when it comes to their managers.

“I’ve been yelled at and cussed out by customers,” said Scottie Lirette, 24, who works at Chop Steakhouse and Bar, on Hunt Club. “And my boss says: ‘Well, do a better job. Make sure the customer is happy.’ But there comes a point you’re being verbally abused or you feel uncomfortable. I think that’s where the line should be drawn.”

Others, like Abby Macmillan, 22, worked at Red Jacket Orchards where she faced similar treatment from employers. She believes it has become better over time.

“Even though customers expect (us) to cater to every whim, managers do stand up for the employee and the customer is surprised by that,” she said.

Chelsea Macdonald, 19, a chef at JJ’s Shawarma in Kemptville, Ont., agrees things have improved. “Employees won’t get fired anymore if a customer complains.”

Antonios Vitaliotis, a professor of the bartending program at Algonquin College, has been teaching for almost two decades and has a different perspective. “I believe the slogan ‘customer is always right’ is misunderstood by those who take it literally,” he said.

“Service is in the eye of the beholder and the expectations may vary. Depending on the perceived value, consumer perceptions of service and the delivery of the service by trained associates, you may have differences in the final service outcomes. But providing high quality service should be a priority for everyone involved.”

There is another incentive for staff to tolerate such customers, though. A sizeable portion of income is made through tips, and service staff that stand up for themselves tend to lose that.

“You could have a $400 table and not get a single cent from that,” said Lirette. “In order to make that money, you put up with it.”

Keohane thinks pay scales for restaurant and bar staff have become better in Canada, but points to places like Australia where pay is enough to not rely on tips.

“It’s a healthier environment because you don’t have to beg for something,” he said.

And if receiving stellar service is what a customer truly desires, Lirette has a simple suggestion:

“Treat people like humans, and you’ll get service that is human.”