True stories with a twist!


When I studied marketing and finance we were taught that “The Customer is always right.” Have values completely changed, are a new group of incompetents running businesses these days, or is there another explanation?

Two separate incidents happened recently that I would appreciate hearing your opinions about.

So I appoint you as marketing judges to evaluate the behavior of managers in two individual situations:

  1. A local Italian restaurant is one of our favorites. We frequent it often, and have introduced it to friends, who also are now clients of this establishment. One friend, knowing how special it is to us, sent us a gift certificate of dinner for two. How special! We saved his gift for a special occasion. When we  chose the date to go, we discovered with horror that the certificate was lost: gone. Taken? Stolen? Accidentally thrown into the garbage? We would never know. All we knew is that it wasn’t where we had put it and was nowhere to be found. I called the restaurant and explained our dilemma to the manager only to be told that a gift certificate is just like cash: when it’s gone it’s gone. There would be no consideration from the restaurant and no acknowledgement of the certificate. That seemed like a cold and unfair policy to me as a frequent customer: what do you think?

2.My two daughters and I visited a spa a few years ago and have returned several times in the last few years. The spa gave us each a post card to be sent to any first time visitor, offering one free treatment. I sent the post card to my husband,                  hoping he would join us there some day. He carefully saved the card and finally, three years after he received it he agreed to come with us.

But when we presented the post card we were informed that the spa no longer honored this card. Do you think it is a fair policy to discontinue an offer without announcing it to clients?

These two examples of business practices left us with the feeling of never wanting to frequent these places again. And all the times we will tell these stories cannot be good advertising for any business. Our Economics classes in Graduate school gave us the statistic that if a customer is satisfied with the way they were treated they will tell one other person. If they are unhappy about the way they were treated they will tell NINE.

And the four of us were unhappy about the way we were treated…


  1. Hi Ronnie,
    Haven’t visited you for a long time but took some time to catch up on your posts. This one sticks out for me as I’ve been on both sides of this fence. With #1, we, like you, were long time customers at a restaurant and were dealing with a gift certificate. We had used part of it and wanted to finish it off, only to have misplaced it. The owners, not even knowing what the balance was, offered us whatever we wanted. I questioned them because I really didn’t want to take advantage of a really nice relationship. We had become friends (of sorts). The upshot was that they provided us with a 5 course meal complete with wine, and when it was finished, as we left, they gave us a certificate for a complimentary pizza. This is what good customer service and marketing is all about. Your version sounds more like greed.
    #2, occurred when I was managing a small electronics firm. A regular client came in with an issue over an in-the-wall speaker for his home music system. My boss didn’t want to do anything for him – until I pulled out the invoices from when we installed the system, totalling more that $15k. Told him we shouldn’t be discouraging future business with this customer over a $50 speaker and brought out a new one for him.
    Your thinking about modern customer service and marketing was spot on. It stinks. The stories I relayed to you above were from about 15yrs ago. Times have changed !!!
    Stay happy and be good to yourself.

    • Nice to hear from you again, Paul. I hope things are going well for you.
      The funny thing about customer service is how quickly it has changed. When I worked at the bank in town they did everything they could to be sure customers had good experiences. That attitude has changed across the board.

      In shops I go into I see salespeople chatting among themselves, ignoring customers. In fact I feel as if I am inconveniencing them if I interrupt their conversations to ask a question.

      UNLESS they’re working on commission.

  2. I would guess that the restaurant does track the gift certificates but they are worried that if someone found the lost one, it could be used twice (or used twice if someone was scamming them and pretending it was lost). But since they know you, it would seem that they could honor it. The last one is interesting considering Southwest Airlines just lost a lawsuit over drink coupons they didn’t honor, see:

  3. An interesting subject in this day and age, firstly I would tend to agree with the proprietors in the first case unless it could be proven they keep no records of the numbered gift certificates, which in itself is bad business practice. In the second case I think you are right, we have the same problem here in Australia , the gift certificate should have had an expiry date on it, if not , again bad business practice. The last point I wish to make is, if you are regular loyal patrons then the owner should have given you the benefit of the doubt.
    But in the final scenario, business is business these days and its all about money.
    Ian aka Emu

  4. In both cases, if you were a loyal customer, they should have made either an exception, or found another way out. Word of mouth is the best advertisement, and it works both ways, good and bad!

  5. Before I became a humor columnist, I was a corporate chef for 15 years. One thing that always stuck with me was something my regional director told me: “The customer isn’t always right; but they are always the customer.” I think that’s something a lot of businesses forget. I tried this logic on my kids, too, but they still keep coming back… 😉

  6. It seems rather short sighted of both of those businesses to not honor your gift certificate/coupons. If you are a happy customer and are treated well, you will most likely share that experience and recommend friends to that business which would bring them more money in the long haul. Sometimes, I think these businesses don’t really care what customers think and their actions prove it.

  7. What some people do to get “comped” – or freebies – at hotels and restaurants is disturbing. But, for a long-time customer, especially one who had brought others to their business, I think the restaurant should have made an exception for you.

    I hadn’t been aware until last year that some places do count on people not redeeming their gift cards until it’s too late. The businesses like it because it’s free money.

    In the short term, both establishments make a profit. In the long term, they lose more than they know. They lose valuable customers like yourself. Sorry this happened to you, Ronnie.

  8. I think in the first case, the Italian restaurant should have offered to honor the lost gift certificate, especially since you are a returning customer. Their cooperation is vital to retaining your loyalty. Your continued word of mouth promotion is also invaluable. In the second case, three years is certainly a long time for a business to honor a special offer. My son owns an online “deal” service and businesses are asked to include restrictions in the fine print. If there was no expiration date, the salon is obligated to honor the offer.

  9. lisa honecker said:

    Here’s what I would do. You’re a GREAT WRITER, write to the local newspapers wherever the restaurant and spa is and explain your story. It won’t be good for business. Since every, every service/food is a markup, the entities wouldn’t lose much money had they honored your lost coupons.

    • That is an excellent idea, but I really would not want to damage anyone’s business. That’s why I did not mention any names. They are simply not very good business people and don’t understand the value of happy customers.

      BUT their food is awfully good!

  10. Sorry–‘laundried.’ Wonder where that came from. I was trying to say ‘washed’ and ‘ironed.’

  11. What a shame. Honestly, the two establishments don’t deserve to be patronized again. My aunt runs a laundry outfit. From time to time, she authorizes free services for her top customers. All they have do at the collection point is to sign a receipt indicating that they’ve collected their clothes (already laundried for free). In the first instance, that’s what I expected the establishment to do. The second case is very annoying. Why didn’t they state the time duration?

    • I rather like your made up word, “laundried.” You must be an extremely talented writer to be able to invent brand new words!

      I am pretty sure that the spa coupon did not have an expiration date. I suppose they just never thought that anyone who had waited all that time to reply to the coupon would ever reply at all.

      If I lived anywhere you I would be a customer of your aunt’s. She sounds like an upstanding woman.

  12. Both are uncaring and inconsiderate to the customer. The bad news is that I’m not remotely surprised. Customer loyalty programmes having nothing to do with being “loyal” to customers.In the end they are just another lure to get more custom/money from you with a smile – sharks display a similar smile just before they eat you:).

  13. They blew it. Vote no with you dollars!

  14. I think both establishments behaved despicably. I would not go back to either and would let them know why. And if my arithmetic is right then each offender should have at least 36 negative comments. Wish I knew the names so I could avoid them.

    • Thank you, Gaye. I made a point of not naming them; I don’t want any revenge from these businesses, but just wanted to know what other people thought about whether I was justified feeling unhappy about their responses.

  15. I agree completely Ronnie…in both cases…penny-wise (at best) and pound-foolish (at least.) Loyal patronage is a treasure – when has it ever been good business practice to squander your treasure? In both cases I’d write a letter…if I heard back from them offering any sort of consolation I’d give them another shot (that maybe only in the case of the restaurant.) In the case of the spa, I’d write a letter and I’d NEVER return. That’s my 2 cents. Really too bad, huh?

    • Unfortunately, the hurt feelings of being treated shabbily are transferred to the business, causing it to suffer from departing customers.There are always other places who are only too anxious to win new supporters.

  16. I knew when I saw the title of your post I was going to be doing some teeth clenching while reading, because after 15 years in retail, I am a huge disbeliever in this old adage “the customer is always right”. Yes, businesses should do what they can to rectify a situation within reasonable means in order to keep a customer it its good graces, but some of the stories I hear of unhappy customers expect backbreaking remedies to their problems., and usually want “special treatment” because they are above the mucky muck of the regular customer base (Not saying that’s the case here, just a lot of the complaints I hear from others who want my unsolicited retail opinion).

    Unless the spa gift card specifically said it had no expiration, I have to side with the spa’s action here. Special offers almost always have a limited time frame, and that’s because costs of products and services can go up very quickly. What may have been a $20 freebie at one time may be a $30 freebie in three years. The business loses out by honoring the old offer.

    The restaurant issue is a bit more murky… I’m guessing there was no unique code on the gift certificates to determine when and if they are used. I know that if I ever lost a gift certificate, I would just accept my fate and never try to beg for the business’ understanding. Of course, that’s just anti-social, non-confrontational me…..

    • I don’t think the customer is always right, either. I have seen unspeakably bad behavior on the part of customers, like wearing a garment for a special occasion and then trying to return it.

      But in the case of a small business like the restaurant, they know us well enough to know that we’re not some opportunists trying to take advantage of anybody.

      Your point is well taken about spa costs rising in three years; I didn’t think of that. But still, if we are spending money for four guests’ stays, the cost of one treatment, worth about $100, isn’t worth causing a hassle or bad feelings.

  17. fransiweinstein said:

    I have spent my career in advertising, and much of it has been devoted to loyalty marketing. The manager of the restaurant is dumber than dumb. You are frequent diners there. While he is technically correct about certificates being like cash, hus argument doesn’t hold up because you are loyal customers. Even though somebody else may try to redeem your certificate. He deserves to lose your business.

    The spa is a bit different in that it took your husband such a long time to use it. Usually offers are time-limited. It might state that if you look closely at the fine print. If it does not then they don’t legally have a leg to stand on. Having said that, if you are a very good customer and if you go very often they should have honoured it, just as a good will gesture.

    • Ah, the days of good will gestures: once an important consideration of running a business. But the strict bottom line rules considered all important don’t hold up if the customer is unhappy and takes his business elsewhere.

  18. I don’t think the customer is always right, but in both cases you’ve described, it’s hard to understand why those businesses were so inflexible. The restaurant should have a record of the gift certificate, and who bought it or who it was for. It would be easy, I would imagine, to make sure that the gift couldn’t be used more than once (if the original were found by someone else, for example). As for the spa, what would it have cost them to give your husband a free treatment? The bad feelings they created, and the business they will now not have in the future, would seem to be a greater loss. My wife and I have run into similarly rigid practices lately — situations in which managers have let us walk out without spending a dime because they were completely unaccommodating. It’s too bad.

    • I wonder if businesses understand the importance of creating good feelings among their paying clientele, especially in this tough economy. Dollars are not spent as easily as they were in good times, and they need as much support as they can get if they want to stay in business.

  19. Sorry to hear you had this experience.. But I have to agree with the above comment from Cyclingrandma, The Customer is often right… But in this day Profit is what its all about not honouring regular customers…
    I know I had a gift card at a well known store bought for me one Christmas, and I forgot about it for several months and the date had run out… and I couldnt use it….

    Wishing you a Great weekend Ronnie…
    Hugs Sue

    • That kind of experience leaves you with a terrible feeling. This card did not have an expiration date: some corporate fingers snapped and the deal was off.

      At Christmas time news reports tell of stores making lots of money because of customers not using the gift cards by the expiration date.

  20. Hard call-lots of gift certificates have expiration dates. I seem to have lots of “Customer is Always Right” stories which of course I can’t remember now, but it does seem these days the customer isn’t the most important part of the transaction. And as you said, tell nine.. and walk away.

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