Reeder: Is the customer always right?
As a teenager I frequently was told “The customer is always right.”
It’s not surprising that mantra was etched into my mind at an early age.
My Dad was a small businessman. Our family’s bread and butter came from the folks who brought their dogs and cats to his veterinary clinic and the famers who had him treat their cattle and hogs.
Folks would call our home at all hours sometimes asking the most inane questions. My favorite was, “Doctor, you spayed our dog two years ago. Can you make it so she’ll now have puppies again?”
You can imagine how a smart alecky teen reacted when he heard his father asked that question.
“Hey, Dad, how can the customer always be right, when some of them are so stupid?”
He just gave me that Dad smile and moved the conversation along.
Perhaps the best illustration of what he was trying to teach me can be found in the lyrics of a Bob Dylan tune:
“Youmay be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
Butyou're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.”
Even if you are “self-employed,” as my father was, your “boss” is each customer that comes through your door. You have to serve each one of them the best you can.
So, you can imagine my shock when he “fired” his biggest customer. The fella paid him $20,000 a year. (About $75,000 in today’s dollars.) I asked him why. He said the person asked him do something he couldn’t ethically do.
The operator of a livestock sales business wanted him to certify that some cattle he hadn't seen were healthy.
I don’t think that at the time I recognized the significance of the decision. Dad had two kids in college and I was still at home. It must have been tempting to look the other way and cut an ethical corner. But he refused to do so.
The one who my father served that day once said, “You cannot serve God and money.”
No, the customer isn’t always right. But as Bob Dylan noted, “We all are going to have to serve somebody.”
That’s the life lesson my father taught me that day.
– Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions.