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Why You're Always Wrong and Your Customers Are Always Right

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Are you feeling down these days? Does it seem as if everybody is saying you are wrong and they are right—like when your customers are screaming about your bad service? Maybe even your relationship with your significant other is going south—and, of course, it's your fault.

So just what is going on?

Well, if you're like most people, you live in a world where blame often happens in a systematic and predictable way. People simply have a tendency to believe the fault lies with someone else—and that someone else can be you. Of course, the process can work in the opposite direction, too... as when you are always right and someone else is wrong.

To answer this (and better diagnose what's really going on), we offer you a handy idea called the fundamental attribution error, or FAE for short.

Also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, FAE has long been recognized by social psychologists and researchers of consumer behavior. It refers essentially to a bias that people have in assigning responsibility for behavior. Specifically, it goes something like this: If something bad happens to me, it's due to somebody or something else; If something good happens to me, well, it's because of me!

It is hardwired in our brains (you see it plainly with young children), and it remains with us throughout our life.

Now, you might think of this as a cute scientific finding that has little relevance to marketing, but you would be wrong. It has everything to do with marketing, sales, service, alliances, and marketing relationships. (We'll go even further: It has an effect on your personal relationships as well.)

Bad Service, or Why You're Always at Fault

Consider service encounters. I'm sure you've had customers who've yelled at you for things that they did themselves. Maybe they didn't read the instructions carefully on a product you sold them, or they didn't see the links on your website they were supposed to click. Maybe you were at fault, or maybe you weren't. It doesn't make any difference, since it's something bad that happened to a customer, so they will typically say it's due to somebody else... namely, you. That's the FAE at work.

Of course, the easiest way out of this is to make sure your customers always have good things happen to them... That makes them feel good, empowered... and they are likely to take responsibility for all of this good stuff.

Let them.

Not convinced that the FAE is that powerful? Consider the following actual, recorded statements* having to do with responsibility for car accidents, and notice the power of the fundamental attribution error:

It Wasn't My Fault!

  • No one was to blame for the accident, but it never would have happened if the other driver had been alert.
  • A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.
  • The telephone pole was approaching fast. I was attempting to swerve out of its path when it struck my front end.

It Was My Fault, but (only partially so)

  • In my attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole.
  • The pedestrian had no idea which way to go, so I ran over him.
  • The accident occurred when I was attempting to bring my car out of a skid by steering it into the other vehicle.
  • A guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.

Breaking Up Alliances and Relationships

Whenever there's an encounter between two people, the context is rife for the fundamental attribution error to occur. Not sure whether that's true?

Think about the relationships you now have with other people and think about one that isn't going well (or maybe one that broke up recently). If you're like most people, you probably think the problems rest with your partner (and your partner thinks the problems are all with you). That, again, is perfectly consistent with the FAE: If something's wrong, it's somebody else's fault.

Satisfaction and Other Things

Often, marketing is concerned with measuring customer reactions. For example, you might be interested in the satisfaction your customers experience. The FAE can play havoc with these measures, typically making you look worse than you really are. The same thing happens in all evaluative situations, such as performance evaluations.

The point of all of this is that to truly understand what's going on you have to understand the biases that people use to judge situations and ascribe responsibility.

No, it's not that you're always wrong and the customer is always right; it's just that customers are hardwired to think that way.

If you understand your own biases, you can take responsibility and improve your customer relations and partnerships. If you understand your partners' biases, you can better work with them by having a more sympathetic ear.

After all, just like you, they're acting human.

* Abstracted from information submitted to the FTC project on consumer life insurance information disclosure—reflects actual policyholder reports.

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  • by Lisa Tue Jul 13, 2010 via web

    "If you understand you're own biases"
    Really? Well, I wonder whose fault such grammatical errors are? :)

  • by Ann Handley Tue Jul 13, 2010 via web

    Sharp eyes, Lisa. Thanks. Fixed.

  • by Josh Nason Tue Jul 13, 2010 via web

    I think one of the best pieces of advice I ever received in customer service was that, "The customer is not always right, but they always must be understood."

    Often, an upset client/customer just wants to know someone is listening to them and understands what the problem is. Obviously if you can resolve their issue and help, that's ideal. In some cases, you just can't and they've already made their decision to leave.

    It's still crucial to listen and understand what the problem is. Perhaps you can act on it, saving future clients down the road.

  • by Baran Wed Jul 14, 2010 via web

    Well said Josh,

    Making client think he is always right might have adverse effects in long term relations, as we are giving him the illusion of him being under control of everything and not raising his misconceptions.

  • by Kathleen Keith Wed Jul 14, 2010 via web

    Great advice and something I think Apple should be taking to heart right now. It's hard to climb out of the "It's not our fault" hole...or the inadequate response to customer concerns. As Josh points out, listening is crucial as well as acting upon the issue appropriately.

  • by Larry Rondeau, The Allied Group Wed Jul 14, 2010 via web

    Good article! "Marketing psychology," or the parts of social psychology dealing with persuasion and other marketing or account management issues is my area of intense study. I always enjoy a good article like this that shows what account managers and customer service professionals are up against.

    But since none of us wants to be wrong, how do I tell you that your concept of the bias all of us see in customers and coworkers (but never ourselves) is right, but your name for it is not? The widely-used textbook "Social Psychology" by David Myers, PhD defines the Fundamental Attribution Error as:

    "The tendency for observers to underestimate situational influences and overestimate dispositional influences upon others' behavior. (Also called correspondence bias, because we so often see behavior as corresponding to a disposition)."

    What you described are Self-Serving Attributions (SSA). Eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson and his coauthors describe this bias:

    "Simply put, these attributions refer to our tendency to take credit for our successes (by making internal attributions) but to blame others or the situation (by making external attributions) for our failures."

    So, you're essentially in the "right church, wrong pew." Your basic premise is absolutely correct. If a project goes south, clients will always think that we, not they, messed up. When they blame you, they sometimes retaliate with digs and unfounded criticism. How will you handle this situation?

    To see what the social psycholorists and other experts say, read "Defeating Personal Attacks" at my blog, Rondeau's Biotech Roundtable at If this link doesn't work, just copy and paste the URL into your browser. Please leave me your comments.

  • by Allen Weiss Wed Jul 14, 2010 via web

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, this is a classic psychological insight...something that people forget. Larry, yes, there are many of these attributions - as you point out.

  • by JML Mkt Thu Jul 15, 2010 via web

    The customer has the right of make a mistake... your customer service don´t!!!!

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