We all know that the old adage that “the customer is always right” could hardly be farther from the truth. In the real world, the clients who think they’re always right are usually wrong – our job, as service providers, is to agree with them and make the appropriate amends.

However, a recently-published report from Cornell University in New York puts an interesting new slant on the whole concept of customer satisfaction, by looking at the subject in terms of customer expectation.

In essence, the three co-authors say that if hotel guests have low expectations, it’s relatively easy to give them a pleasant surprise, whereas if they have sky-high expectations, it’s relatively easy to disappoint them.

Anyone who’s paid next-to-nothing for a night in some backstreet hovel bereft of star ratings will be overjoyed if they are offered a free coffee, while someone who has paid top dollar for the Presidential Suite only to discover that room service is fresh out of macrobiotic aubergine smoothies is likely to be more than a little miffed.

The key, the Cornell report authors say, is to give staff the freedom to take matters into their own hands and improvise. The hotel business is increasingly built on systems and procedures, and “computer says no” is the wrong response to any request.

A colleague recently visited a four-star hotel restaurant and plumped for the sea bass with clam sauce, only to be told that it was not available because they had run out of clams. “OK,” said my friend, “I’ll have the sea bass without the clam sauce.”

You can see what’s coming – a real sitcom moment. The restaurant’s menu said the sea bass came with a clam sauce, and there were no clams. The menu did not offer sea bass without clam sauce, so the waiter couldn’t take the order…

In the end, the matter was resolved, but my friend will not be rushing back. Even in a four-star hotel, the waiter was not empowered – or he felt he was not empowered – to take matters into his own hands.

No-one expects the local chippie to serve clam sauce – free salt and vinegar is a given, a wedge of lemon is a bonus. In a four-star hotel restaurant, “no” is never the right answer.

The Cornell report focuses on the hospitality industry, but there are lessons here for all, regardless of industry sector. It’s the commercial equivalent of helping an old lady to cross the road; there is no immediately-obvious financial gain, but the old lady – and those who witness the act of kindness – will be back.

Customer-facing staff need to understand that while rules inevitably exist, they are there to be broken, or at least bent. Satisfied customers are just that – satisfied. Exceed their expectations, and they’ll be delighted.

There’s a world of difference.

Editor’s note: For further information, please contact Simon Scarborough on 07801 571357 or at