The Customer Isn’t Always Right

I gave this jar to my partner as a gift once, because he was responsible for customer complaints.
I gave this jar to my partner as a gift once, because he was responsible for customer complaints.


Back in my uniformed police officer days, I once responded to a call at a home our department had visited many, many times. The calls were always of the neighbor/family/kid trouble kind, and the woman who called was often unreasonable and irrational.

I was walking up the driveway alone, because our department was a small one, and working in a double car – two officers – was rare. As I approached the house, the occupant came out her front door and onto the porch. She pointed her finger at me and yelled, “NO! I want a real cop here!”

I stopped and said, “Ma’am. I am a real police officer. If you don’t want ME here, then I presume you don’t need the services of the police.” She continued yelling that she wanted someone “real”, so I returned to my patrol car. I radioed into the dispatcher that the caller didn’t want my services. Then I left.

You may be able to guess what happened next. The woman had apparently called the station and spoken with a supervisor, and another police officer – a male – was sent to take the call instead.

I was livid.

I thought – and think to this day – that she should have been told that a competent, sworn police officer was available to handle her complaint, that she didn’t have the right to choose on the basis of sex, and that no other officer should have been dispatched.

I was recently reminded of this incident after reading about a Flint, MI hospital that allegedly granted a new father’s request that his baby not be looked after by any African-American nurses, one nurse in particular. There is some dispute about whether the father’s request was actually granted, but one statement from the hospital CEO said, “We regret that our policies were not well enough understood and followed . . .” I don’t think this statement leaves much doubt that the nurse in question was somehow prevented from doing her job for this white baby.

HR writers and thinkers – including me – implore HR to have a larger sense of the business that employs them, including an increased awareness of and attendance to the customers that fund them and their departments. But cases like mine, and the hospital in Flint, should serve as a cautionary tale to be sensible about what the customer is asking the employees to do. HR managers should train their employees to managers to ask one simple question:

 Is the customer’s request reasonable and non-discriminatory to the employee?

If the answer is NO, tell the customer to take a hike.


(Do you have any stories of unreasonable or crazy customer service requests? Share them in the comments.)