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Fact-Checking Steve Jobs: Was “The Customer Is Always Right” Really Coined by a Customer?

Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs.
Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs.

© 2015 Universal Pictures

In the new movie Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin, a nonbeliever questions the Apple guru’s wisdom by reminding him of the saying “the customer is always right.” Jobs, played by Michael Fassbender, shoots back, “I guarantee whoever said ‘the customer is always right’ was a customer.” Was “the customer is always right” really coined by a customer?

Probably not. It’s not 100-percent clear who first said the phrase “the customer is always right,” but there’s little doubt who popularized it. The earliest known mention of the motto “the customer is always right” attributes it to Marshall Field, the founder of the famous chain of Chicago department stores that bore his name. Appearing in the Boston Sunday Herald and then the Boston Daily Globe in September 1905, the article said, “Mr. Field adheres to the theory that ‘the customer is always right,’ ” adding, “He must be a very untrustworthy trader to whom this concession is not granted.” The saying spread quickly. A November 1905 edition of Providence, R.I.’s Corbett’s Herald noted, “One of our most successful merchants, a man who is many times a millionaire, recently summed up his business policy in the phrase, ‘The customer is always right.’ ” (There is no way to know for sure which “most successful merchant” the article describes, but the description does match Field.) The following year, the phrase was once again cited to “a merchant who is many times a millionaire,” this time in the published lesson plans of a Sunday School teacher.

Field became even more famous in the years following his death in 1906, and his posthumous fame cemented his association with the saying. Within a few years, the saying was described as “one of the wisest things he ever said” and “the motto upon which the greatest department store on earth was built,” with trade journals for merchants, marketers, and druggists all crediting him for the principle. By 1908 it had spread to London, where a book about changing manners in the city mentioned that the Swiss hotelier César Ritz, the founder of the famous Ritz luxury hotels, was influenced by the maxim “Le client n’a jamais tort,” which is French for “the customer is never wrong.” Ritz was once believed to be the originator of the phrase, until earlier instances were found crediting it to Field.

Not that all these businessman actually believed it was true. Instead, the saying was always intended more as a customer service policy than a statement of fact. A popular anecdote that was republished in a few publications around 1910, under the headline “Carrying Out Marshall Field’s Precept, ‘The Customer Is Always Right,’ ” described the use of professional “department store scape-goats” who would be “fired” as a charade carried out to appease customers:

Two young men who are employed in a big department store were dining together. “Well, how many times did you lose your job to-day?” asked one.

“I had an easy time of it to-day,” replied the other. “I was only fired six times.”

A friend seated at the table with them expressed surprise at this remarkable conversation.

“Well, you see it’s this way,” said the one who had first spoken. “Tom happens to be the store’s professional fired man. There isn’t an hour goes by but some disgruntled customer comes in with a complaint about some error and demands that the person who is responsible for the error be reprimanded. That’s where Tom comes in. He is sent for and told that the mistake is due to his carelessness, and that his services are no longer required. Tom goes away, apparently crestfallen, and awaits the next summons.”

As for the real Steve Jobs, he didn’t believe in the saying, either. “Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them,” Jobs told members of his Mac team in 1982. He later repeated this idea in a 1998 interview with Business Week. In fact, Jobs was willing to tell customers that they were wrong personally, as in this response he sent to one customer in 2008:

This is what happens when your MacBook Pro sustains water damage. They are pro machines and they don’t like water. It sounds like you’re just looking for someone to get mad at other than yourself.

As for the witticism “Whoever said ‘the customer is always right’ was a customer,” Jobs didn’t come up with that (as far as I can tell, he never said it), nor is it strictly a Sorkinism. As Garson O’Toole, the self-styled Quote Investigator, pointed out to me, those words appeared in the mouth of a shop assistant in a cartoon by Jimmy Hatlo in the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, as early as 72 years ago. It’s unlikely that Sorkin would have seen that cartoon, of course. But as Steve Jobs also often said (though he seems to have always gotten the attribution wrong), “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.

Thanks to the Quote Investigator for his research for this article.

Read more in Slate about Steve Jobs: