Is The Customer Always Right?

Group 55

The customer wants a bicycle company to manufacture a bicycle which uses a low-quality material. The engineer notices this and wants to replace it with a more durable material, but it would change the look of the bicycle. The manager disagrees and tells the engineer ‘the customer is always right’. If the engineer chooses not to change the material the bike might break in few months, and might also put the customer in a hazard. However, if the engineer changes the material, he would go against his employer and customers. The engineer has to act in this particular situation. [1]

The customer is not always right

The process of making an ethical decision is complicated that includes a series of ‘steps’ [2]. The stakeholders in this case are the engineer, manager and customer. Changing the material of the bicycle would upset the customer because his desires wouldn’t be met. The manager loses trust and can’t rely on his employee to follow his instructions. The engineer maintains his professional integrity by following his code of conduct, but risks losing his job.

The moral values of the engineer are that since he is aware the bike is a hazard, he wants to fix it and keep the customer safe. He also wants to keep other people in society safe from the bicycle because if it breaks down it could cause injury or an accident. He values that he should be truthful in his work, and so wants to address the faulty cables instead of ignoring them. He also wants to have self-respect that he is a good engineer who can do his job well and deliver a high standard product.

The option for action in this part is the engineer should inform the customer about the material problem and offer options for solutions. Several strategies could be used. In Black and White Strategy, only two options for action are considered, changing the material or not. The cause of action for the engineer to change the material is just because the material that the customer request to repair the bicycle could cause danger to the user. However, according to Cooperation Strategy, the engineer should also consult other stakeholders (the customer) to look for a win-win solution. In Whistleblowing Strategy, the engineer could inform the media or the public about the issue as he wants to go against the desire of his employer. The cost of this strategy is high but the ‘human safety or health is at stake’ [2]. So it would be worth to use this strategy.

The moral acceptability of the above option for action needs to be judged by several formal and informal ethical frameworks.

Formally, in Utilitarianism:

‘‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’’ [2]

  1. van de Poel & L. Royakkers, 2006

The engineer letting the customer choose whether to replace a more durable material or not would bring the highest number of stakeholders as the manager and the customer would be happy with either decision. And according to the freedom principle, the engineer must inform the customer about the problem. Otherwise, the engineer would deny the pleasure of the customer whether change the material or not. Also, in Kant’s Theory:

“A nature cause is a state of a substance upon which another state of some substance follows in accordance with necessary rule; this rule is the pertinent casual law.” [3]

KrV A189/B232, A534/B562

The moral rule, in this case, is the codes of conduct form the institution of IMechE.

‘…identify and quantify all risks associated with their work and manage them in conformity with accepted engineering and environmental standards and in a manner which does not compromise the welfare, health and safety of society. They shall inform those for whom they work in all matters relating to risk in a full and timely fashion.’ [4]

CR5.4, Codes of Conducts Regulations IMechE

To follow the codes of conduct from his institution, the engineer should inform the customer about the potential risk and give the customer options to choose.

Informally, in common sense rule. It is obvious duty of a good engineer to inform the customer the potential danger of the product.

Customer is always right

‘Customer is always right’ is positive business ethics, which will win the trust of the customer. In this case, customer, engineer and manager play the role of stakeholders and engineer wants to repair the bike without changing the material. When this decision been made, the customer will be happy with this for the bike being repaired. The manager will be happy as well because the customer’s demand has been met and the relationship between the customer and the company will be better. But the engineer will not be happy for that he did not make a decision based on his engineering knowledge, but the manager may trust him in his later career.

The customer is always right, and the engineer wants to follow codes of conduct of the company, then we advise option for action is that the engineer should inform the customer about the problem and give the customer option to choose. This action is based on both the theory of ‘utilitarianism’ and ‘positive business ethics’.

‘An act or practice is right or good or just in the utilitarian view insofar as it tends      to maximize happiness, usually defined as the surplus of pleasure over pain.’ [5]

John Plamenatz (1958)

‘I find that, in my business dealings and the dealings of my business, the principle of telling the whole truth cuts through ethical dilemmas almost immediately. This means telling the truth to employees, clients, vendors, prospective employees and the public.’ [6]

Ronald A. Howard (1992)

Usually, the customer does not have a mature consideration of all the engineer design aspects when they are expressing the demand. But the requirements do shows what they need. The word from the manager “Customer is always right” means even the request of the customer seems to be not that suitable, the customer is always right for that responsibility of the engineer is to optimise the design as much as possible on the premise of safety and the requirement of the customer.

In this case, the able to satisfied the requirement of engineering safety specification, which will result in malfunction. First thing first, the customer is lack of the knowledge of engineering, and it is hard for him to consider the mechanical property when choosing the material. As engineers, they must provide adequate and useful information to make sure the customer can make a decision when understood the advantages and disadvantages of using this kind of aesthetic material. In short, the final decision should be made by the customer when all risks have been stated, which is the truth-telling in business ethics. If the customer insists on the opinion that using the aesthetic material, the engineers should try their best to meet the requirement, minimise the risk at the same time.

Reflection & Conclusion:

The reflection is based on the outcome of several different ethical frameworks that lead to the same most allowable moral conclusion. The engineer should inform the customer all the risks of the bicycle and offer options for choosing.


1. Bartlett, Clare. Is the Customer Always Right? Santa Clara University. [Online] August 26, 2015. [Cited: March 21, 2018.]

2. The Ethical Cycle. I. van de Poel, L. Royakkers. 1, s.l. : Journal of Business Ethics, 2006, Vol. 71.

3. Allison, Henry E. Kant’s theory of freedom. s.l. : University of Cambridge, 1990. ISBN 0-521-38270-X.

4. Code of Conduct Regulations – IMechE. [Online] May 28, 2014. [Cited: March 21, 2018.]

5. Utilitarianism, Economics, and Legal Theory. Posner, Richard A. s.l. : University of Chicago, 1979.

6. Journal of Management Development. Howard, Ronald A. 4, s.l. : Journal of Management Development, 1992, Vol. 11

11 thoughts on “Is The Customer Always Right?

  1. Yes, the common sense approach seems like the best first step to take. The customer isn’t aware the bike uses a low-quality material, so maybe if the engineer informs him, the customer could hopefully change his mind. This would keep everyone happy.

    But if the customer doesn’t agree, then the engineer can fall back on the Separatism model so he doesn’t go against his boss. Atleast it would protect him and leaves the issue between the manager and customer.

    The “customer is always right” is a good attitude for keeping good customer relations, but I guess it depends on the type of business. For businesses that don’t rely much on technical expertise (food, clothes shops), then this attitude is great. But for businesses that require technical expertise to deliver a great product (automobiles, medical equipment, etc.), then this approach isn’t good to use.

  2. Very classic and interesting topic.

    Usually, this topic only has two stakeholders: the customer and the company. However, there are three stakeholders in this case: the engineer, the manager and the customer, which makes this problem more complex as it involves more uncertainties.

  3. I agree with you conclusion that the engineer should inform the customer and gives him/she options for chosing (although this is probably manager’s job).
    In my opinion, what we trying to achieve in a business is giving the customers what they want. Sometimes your customers know what they want and sometimes they don’t (this is why all the designers I know hate their customers). In this case, maybe the customer does want a bad bicycle because it is a gift to someone he/she doesn’t like. Or maybe the customer just doesn’t know the drawbacks of using that specific material.

  4. According to the procedure of the company, each performs their duties. Engineer is not the one who directly interact with consumers.
    Although referring to consequentialist view, it is ethical and moral for the engineer to inform the potential risks to the customer. It actually breaks the company’s policy. As the company is a hierarchical organisation, the engineer may not be delegated power to directly interact with consumers.
    Therefore although the engineer is trying to do something good to the customer and has made his choice for the ethical dilemma, a more appropriate way should be letting manager to make the decision and tell the customer.

  5. Although it is easy to win the trust of the customer by fulfilling the requirement of customers, It was pointed out that customers could be dishonest, have unrealistic expectations, and try to misuse a product in ways that void the guarantee. If their unreliable requirement is achieved, it will result in malfunction. The malfunction of products would exert threat on users and other people, the responsibility confirmation would be troublesome. If the customer is made perfectly to understand what it means for him to be right, what right on his part is, then he can be depended on to be right.

    But “The Customer Is Always Right” would exert negative working experiences which would cause resentment among employees. It increases the service cost and management cost. The more economic benefit will be earned if companies abandon some unreliable customers.

  6. If a company follow the rule the customer always right. It will belittle employees and takes away their empowerment. A business will never run smoothly with unhappy employees.

  7. Thank you for your comment.

    However, some facts are uncertain in this case. It is, for example, not known whether the manager has enough professional knowledge to make the most acceptable decision. There is a chance that the manager makes the decision that makes most stakeholders unhappy as the manager lack of experience or professional knowledge. I think the Technocratic Strategy could be applied, meaning the engineer should be the one to choose what to do.

  8. In this case, stakeholders’ interests conflict. The customer wants the company to manufacture a bicycle under his instruction. The manager wants to maintain a good relationship with the customer and guarantee customer satisfaction. While the engineer wants to produce a good quality product.
    Engineer is facing an ethical dilemma at the time. However, from the utilitarian perspective to assure the greatest happiness, not only these 3 people are involved. Other people who may be affected due to the bicycle incident should also be taken into consideration.
    Moreover, referring to the sustainable marketing mix, the company is responsible to use good quality raw materials and ensuring customers safety when using the product.
    To conclude, the engineer is right to inform the customer, so he can avoid the potential accident for the customer and potential reputation loss for the firm.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      I partly agree with your idea. In utilitarianism, actions are judged by the amount of pleasure and pain they bring about. Three stakeholders are involved in this case. If the engineer directly informs the customer, it is uncertain that the customer will agree with the opinion of the engineer. In which case, both the engineer and the manager would be unhappy.

      However, if the engineer follows the Separatism model and lets the manager choose the option, at least two stakeholders would happy no matter what option the manager chooses.

  9. The common sense approach seems to be relevant here. Informing the customer that an alternative repair is more durable seems the best option and allowing her/him to make that choice.

    Of course, the engineer needs to also ensure that he maintains a good relationship with his boss, and going outside of the ‘chain of command’ could be a violation of his contract. Therefore, the engineer needs to inform his/her manager of the alternative. The engineer could then fall back onto the Separatism model (Lecture 1) and leave the decision with her/his manager.

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