On 15 March 1909, on Oxford Street, it opened its doors Selfridges & co.the second largest department store in London. Its motto "the customer is always right!' has been able to transcend time and space, becoming an echo to which to appeal to show the ugliness and baseness of the human soul. It is no wonder that social networks have become the theatre where extras barely protagonists of their own lives seek their 5 minutes of glory by creating - with the complicity of newspapers - media cases for the restaurateur who charges a broken plate or the cutting of a piece of toast. But what does good manners say? And the law?

Is the customer always right?

Micheal O'Leary, the president of Ryanair, the leading low-cost airline, told the Financial Times that the customer is almost always wrong. This statement has not generated any sales collapse because its prices are the lowest on the market and therefore respond to the need for low spending of its target customers. Micheal O'Leary has taught his customers (and everyone else) that only price matters, that is, the satisfaction of need comes first.

The need (for protagonism)

In a perfect world, sommeliers, restaurateurs and customers are well-educated people who leave all kinds of misunderstandings at home. But the world is not perfect and people are even less so. Good manners? Poor Galeazzo Florimonte and Giovanni Della Casa have been turning in their graves for almost five centuries. La bienséances is certainly not taught in modern schools, from which come out rampant young people even with top grades who do not know how to sit at the table or make conversation and send indecipherable chat lines in an Italian that would make their own grandparents with fifth grade crawl. The basics.

And here they are, parading the gentlemen nobodies ready to share a photo of a receipt to seek controversy at all costs. And controversy, it is known, makes more audience than culture. These are the same people who admire the shouting on television, those of today's trumpeters who without kingdom or horse draw their tongues in defence of absolute nothingness. After all, we are in the age where for many the real need to be satisfied is that of protagonism, to hell with Micheal O'Leary and whoever for him. Your child breaks a plate and the restaurateur charges €20? Let's mount a media case, complete with intelligent comments in its wake. That makes clicks, everything else is boredom. The rest is boredom. They have not been taught that those who break pay and that if indeed that plate was an artistic ceramic 20 € is not even a symbolic price.

The customer is always right if he is correct and polite. The restaurateur as well.

Reason has only two enemies: unfairness and rudeness. When a customer is correct and polite he is always right. When a restaurateur is correct and polite he is always right. Being right is, therefore, very simple. The restaurateur who is not right is the one who pretends to charge an extra price not agreed with the customer for a service requested by the customer, so to always be right it is enough to be correct and write on the menu any surcharges or politely communicate them if they are something not already expressed on paper. The customer who complains about an extra charge on the receipt for any service requested that was not agreed upon at the time of the service is right. If the price has been agreed and he complains, he has only a need to complain and, where his needs have been met, the need for protagonism remains and there is no remedy for that.

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The wrong bottle of wine

At sommelier the arduous task of being a fine psychologist and getting the right wine at the right time. However, how to behave when the customer does not like the wine he has ordered? It does not even need to be said that if it is the wine that is wrong - i.e. has any defect whatsoever - the customer is right to demand that the bottle be changed. He should not even have to ask for it. Similarly, if the customer has ordered a €15 Prosecco DOCG and is served a €55 Champagne, the customer is right to demand to pay the €15 equal to the cost of the wine he ordered if he was not informed of the difference in the price of the bottle served because perhaps the one he requested was finished. Again, he should not even have to ask.

However, if the bottle of wine is right and it is a problem 'only' of the customer's taste - whether this customer is ignorant, i.e. in good faith, or deliberately argumentative because he is hoping to have a bottle scrounged up or wants to look like a connoisseur at his table - the restaurateur is not obliged to do anything he does not want to do himself. Therefore the assessment is only one: is it worthwhile for the restaurant to satisfy the illicit request of this customer who is not right? If yes he will change the bottle, if no he will politely reply that he cannot fulfil the request.

TripAdvisor, Facebook and the like between reviews and threats

In the early days of the year 2000, the world did not end, only the era in which food and wine critics and journalists were the only ones who could give ratings to restaurants. TripAdvisor was born, and there they were, the same gentlemen nobody with a need for protagonism, ready to give ratings to the places they frequented. Often even to those not frequented for a few pennies, envy or dislike. And the more the chef went from being a labourer to a TV star, the more improbable reviews flourished, requests for scrounging of all kinds in exchange for a positive review and threats of negative reviews in the face of unsatisfied claims. 

It has to be said: being a sommelier and restaurateur today is tough as one is at the mercy of mass rudeness. It's all about 'honest prices', read 'lunch or dinner I can afford'. So if one cannot afford to drink that bottle in that establishment, the restaurateur is dishonest? And here restaurateurs are also at their best, displaying a rudeness only matched by some patrons with responses to negative reviews that not even an 8-year-old child would respond to after his snack has been stolen.

An invitation: "dear restaurateur, remember what your mother used to say to you when you showed her a drawing that would have disturbed even Picasso for such deconstructivism? Gorgeous!" That is, certain reviews can only be answered by cutting short with the aplomb of Vaganova.

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The customer is not always right: here is what the law says

'The customer is always right' is an advertising slogan and therefore has no objective legal basis, far from it. Although the law absolutely protects the consumer, it is important to distinguish certain cases:

  • If the customer is informed of a possible defect even before the purchase, this cannot be objected to afterwards. For example, if the customer enters a restaurant where the menu is regularly displayed, chooses an expensive dish or wine knowing the price in advance, he certainly cannot complain about the cost after eating (or drinking).
  • The restaurateur is obliged to give the customer what was agreed in the purchase contract, so what should he do if the bottle of wine chosen by the customer is not to his liking? If the bottle of wine given is free from defects, the restaurateur is NOT obliged to change the bottle, and the customer CANNOT claim either not to pay for it or to replace it with a different wine. So it is up to the restaurateur to 'play it smart' and give the customer the chance to order a new bottle at no extra cost (the rejected bottle can always be sold by the glass anyway...). Nothing more is owed to the customer under the law.

Often both restaurateurs and customers forget that there is a contract between them atypical, i.e. a contract not expressly regulated by the civil code, but negotiated by the parties with ad hoc conditions that respect the limits of the law. The object of this contract, which is bilateral and consensual, is the supply of goods - i.e. food and beverages - and services - i.e. the work of the entire restaurant staff - in return for a monetary consideration. The restaurateur MUST make it possible for the customer to know what he will receive and at what price, while the customer MUST pay the bill. The contract is sealed at the time of ordering, and when the customer is informed and the restaurateur serves what he has ordered, there can be no question of default.

To recapitulate...

The healthy corporate customer does not want to be right regardless or be a nuisance to his supplier. The sommelier must always ask himself what the customer in front of him needs. For a restaurant to thrive, it must satisfy the emotional, functional and/or social needs of the customer. If these are met, the healthy customer has no reason to complain and the sommelier does not need to ask whether the customer is right. If the customer wants or can spend little, the sommelier must propose a wine in line with this need without belittling it, on the contrary, enhancing it soberly. A capable sommelier succeeds in proposing the best possible wine among all those that meet the customer's requirements (price, pairing, brand...).

So the customer is always right? Yes, but also no.

The customer is always right