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“That’s The Way (I Like It)”: When Customers Sing the Wrong Song

Perhaps we’ve trained customers to believe that they’re always right or “king” so thoroughly that some of them feel “special” enough to violate institutional norms with impunity. Some of the behavior I witnessed during a business trip last month made me wonder whether we’ve taken our “customer focus” too far.

Example 1: “U Can’t Touch This”

“Do not touch, please!” the museum guard called out to the fellow who had his entire hand on one of the exhibits in the sculpture garden at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

I could see that the guy had heard the guard, but even as the guard walked toward him he continued to play with the sculpture. When the guard was still several feet away, the misbehaving museum-goer announced petulantly, as if to justify his behavior, “But I saw them touching!” referring to a couple that the same guard had stopped from touching the same sculpture a few minutes earlier.

Then, as if to say, “I’ve defied you long enough that anyone watching can tell that I’m definitely not stopping because you told me to,” he deliberately removed his hand from the sculpture and walked away just before the guard reached him.

Example 2: “I Did It My Way”

On the flight back to New York, I had the aisle seat in an exit row. The standard protocol for airplane exit rows is that the passengers seated there must be able to manage opening the exit door and be willing to assist other passengers through it. The assumption is that the passengers in the exit row won’t themselves create dangerous conditions if there’s an emergency evacuation.

The guy across the aisle had already stowed his stuff, but as soon as the flight attendants had strapped themselves into their seats, he moved his shoes and his messenger bag from the correct spot under the seat in front of him to the floor directly in front of his seat — where they fully and completely blocked the row — so he could stretch his legs out more comfortably over them. Then he promptly went to sleep.

This passenger clearly knew the drill — he obeyed it to the letter, until no one was watching. Probably he had never flown on a plane that evacuated, and the likelihood was that this flight wouldn’t either, so he figured why should he give up 10 minutes of comfort? The statistics were obviously in his favor, although the rules were just as obviously not.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

A minority of people will intentionally do the wrong thing: behave badly and violate norms. They may believe they’re doing no harm because they do not perceive the harm themselves. Or they may realize they’re out of line but care more about satisfying their own needs or whims.

The fellow at the museum justified his obvious rule-breaking by childishly citing someone else’s prior violation, and he actually appeared to enjoy his 10 seconds of rebelliousness. And the airline passenger complied with the rules as long as he knew he was under observation, but he didn’t feel the need to obey a rule that was temporarily unenforceable.

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, suggests that we usually behave better when we believe we’re being observed. If that’s so, maybe putting graphics of open eyes around the sculpture garden and above the airplane’s emergency rows would help. But how can we deal with individuals like the rude guest at the sculpture garden, who selfishly believe they are entitled to express themselves even when — or explicitly because — their behavior is disruptive to others?

The customer is always the customer. It’s in every organization’s best interest to love their customers, but not to let them trample on the business model, the employees, or the privileges of other customers. Sometimes we just have to tell these self-focused customers that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Onward and upward,


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2 thoughts on ““That’s The Way (I Like It)”: When Customers Sing the Wrong Song

  1. Great points Liz. The customer isn’t always right, but the customer is still the customer. I respect organizations and their representatives when they confidently guide me toward the best solution rather than just always saying “yes.” Whether it’s a buying situation or I’m returning a product or have a customer service issue. I want them to help me, not pander to me.

    Keep up the great work!


  2. Of course you’re a good and reasonable customer, Randy. You’re a nice, kind person who works on and writes about trust. For a living!

    Given the unfortunate increases in narcissism in the population, though, we really need to help service reps — and all employees who deal with the public — cope with a growing proportion of individuals who are truly difficult, and seem to enjoy being that way.

    Thanks for getting in touch!

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