Why the mantra 'customer is always right' is wrong

HR's social advocacy has the potential of placing the social licence of an organisation at risk. [iStockphoto]

In part, an advert read; “…ex-convicts with a positive track record during their prison time and after release are encouraged to apply”. The advert attracted backlash from the public because the organisation in question was contradicting public opinion of previously incarcerated individuals.

Organisations operate with their customers in mind. Not only are organisations extremely sensitive to perceptions from their customers, they are ever reading the mind of the customer to conform to it in every step they take. “Customer is always right” is an anthem that managers continuously sing to their staff. In fact, many managers have a conviction that the success of their organisation is pegged on catering for their consumers' demands scrupulously.

If customers - individuals or corporations - are in the tree-planting mood to counter global warming, organisations follow them religiously through corporate social responsibility in tree-planting sessions. Educating the poor, sponsoring sports, cleaning towns and donating food staff to orphanage homes, are some of the corporate social responsibilities that organisations do.

The idea behind corporate social responsibility is that organisations are human-valuing and therefore have a moral obligation to a social cause by situating the profit-making goals alongside the interests of the public. There is no doubt that involvement in corporate social responsibility empowers communities and uplifts the lives of many people, besides the branding of the organisation.

Customer is always right” is an anthem that managers continuously sing to their staff. [iStockphoto]

However, this noble idea should go further. Organisations should realise that occasionally, the “customer is wrong”. Faced with this reality, organisations should put on the armour of confidence and simply educate and correct their customers. The need to not only follow the public opinion by engaging in corporate social responsibility, to shaping their customers’ opinion through human resource social advocacy is a win-win for the organisation and the public in the long-run.

Human resources social advocacy is an interventionist approach where the HR proactively engages in efforts aimed at shaping and/or changing people’s perceptions on social issues. HR advocacy in shaping opinions is done through the conveyance and communication of ideas related to HR matters of public interest. As a corporate communication artefact, HRSA is developed by the HR department with the aim of attaining social change through proactively shaping public perceptions toward major issues in society.

Organisations should tread carefully here, though. This is because, unlike corporate social responsibility, HR's social advocacy has the potential of placing the social licence of an organisation at risk because of an attempt to shape the public opinion on an issue that is unpopular. This is exemplified by the imaginary utopian advert above. The reason organisations never consider such an advert is because of the negative perceptions towards previously incarcerated individuals in society.

This does not mean that organisations should fear to engage in such unpopular stand, especially when the end-goal benefits all. What they need are effective strategies to counter initial resistance and negative publicity.

Ms Serebwa is a HR Professional. [email protected]