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No, the Customer Is Not Always Right. Here's What I Learned From My Worst Customer

We were opening for lunch. It was the summer of 2006, and the dumplings at my first New York City eatery were ready to roll out to customers. As I turned up the volume on the sound system from my basement office, I glanced at the security camera feed. I saw Gina grooving to the Jamiroquai song I had just uploaded as she broke open a roll of quarters on the side of the counter. In her cover letter, she had described having just moved to NYC and wrote, "Hi, my name is Gina and I can't stop smiling!" Gina was the first cashier I hired for my then two-year-old restaurant, and what she wrote was true. She was born with hospitality in her soul. Anyone who hires customer-facing staff will appreciate how psyched I was to have her.

Gina was confident and relaxed with customers, which is why I noticed, when I glanced back at the camera feed, that her posture had stiffened. Another camera revealed the cause: a difficult lady from the neighborhood. This customer was infamous for placing an order for six dumplings, consuming three, and then asking for a fresh order of six. Her litany of reasons never changed: "not hot enough," "too dry," "too wet," "not served with enough sauce," or "served with leaky sauce."

Worse yet, she would berate the staff, accusing them of not working attentively. The staff, to their credit, handled customers like her with graciousness. Today was different. Gina was crying and looking back toward the kitchen for support. Something had gone terribly wrong.

I ran upstairs and intervened. After turning down an order of dumplings that had just been made and thumbing her nose at a fresh order that would take another eight minutes, our customer demanded a complimentary order to compensate for her wait. She threatened to have Gina terminated and reiterated to me with venom in her voice: "You should fire this cashier." Writing these words still puts a lump in my throat and a feeling of dread in my chest. I checked on the quality of the dumplings she had been served. I informed her they were fresh, and while we would be happy for her to wait the eight minutes for a custom, steamed order, we were unable to further compensate her.

But then it struck me: No well-meaning employee should ever come to tears while on the clock. I took a deep breath and, as my neck and upper back muscles tightened, continued: "I appreciate that you are a return customer, but it seems like we're unable to get it right for you. I am so sorry for that, but perhaps not every customer is for every restaurant, nor is every restaurant for every customer." I then kindly asked her to leave and to never return.

What became clear at that moment was that I should have intervened with this customer the very first time she complained. By letting my team deal with such customers, I leaned into how I "entrusted" them. In truth, I just hadn't wanted to engage with yucky situations myself.

That day was not only a wake-up call for me on how to support my team--it was also a reve­lation. A paycheck wasn't enough. I needed to prove I had their backs. I soon came to see it as an investment: improving morale while simultaneously preventing blowups. From then on, I got involved earlier when issues arose. I also made it an expectation for managers at every location.

This customer may have gotten the better of me--at least for a time--but I actually owe her a debt. Frankly, we all owe our tough customers that. Maybe they note our flaws and their feedback makes us better. Or maybe some are just so awful that learning to deal with them is a lesson in itself. Regardless of the outcome, you won't regret standing up to them. Keeping the Gina on your staff happy is just that important.



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