The customer is always right.
No doubt we’ve all heard or probably said those words more times that any of us can count. The phrase is a hallmark of well-mannered customer service. If three little words define true love, one could argue these five words define good business. In either case, used in good faith, they foster a relationship based on mutual admiration and respect. Like anything else, though, there are those who selfishly abuse them and ruin the entire sentiment. The scales tip and whether it’s love or business, the cordial give and take is replaced by something every bit as cordial as a hostage negotiation.
I got to thinking about all of this recently when I heard the story of Jennifer Livingston. Livingston is a morning news anchor at WKBT in La Crosse, Wisconsin. A friend of mine posted a video of Ms. Livingston on Facebook. It was titled simply: Editorial: Jennifer. My friend praised her “articulate response” adding, “kudos to her for going public and giving this man the shame he deserves.” She had my attention and so I clicked on the video.
Standing before a t.v. monitor, Livingston begins to talk about viewer e-mail she received from a man complaining about her weight. Here is what he wrote to her.
It’s unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years. Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.
Livingston reponded, in part, “The truth is I am overweight…to the person who wrote me that letter– do you think I don’t know that? That your cruel words are pointing out something that I don’t see? You don’t know me. You are not a friend of mine. You are not a part of my family. And you have admitted that you don’t watch this show. So you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside. And I am much more than a number on the scale.”
In short, she called him a bully and as the mother of three young girls, asked him and the viewers to consider the impact of an adult behaving in such a way. ”If you are at home and you are talking about the fat newslady, guess what?” she said. “Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat.”
You can watch her entire response here:
I could not help but feel inspired by Jennifer Livingston, feeling a twinge of recognition as I heard her respond to words that are, at their core, nothing more than cruel and hurtful. I’ve certainly had my share of those over the years. That’s a whole other post.
Livingston has had her critics, though, on this matter. Predictably, there have been any number of people who want to defend the author of the e-mail. They want to write Livingston off as “overly sensitive.” Then there are those who choose to use this as an opportunity to grandstand about health and wellness in America. I have to laugh at the mere suggestion of it. This man did not indicate any concern for Jennifer personally or her overall health, rather he bashed her for not being a “suitable example,” whatever the hell that is. It seems a little much to me to expect a news anchor to promote a healthy lifestyle or any lifestyle for that matter. But let’s be real, here. He wasn’t talking about her health–he knew it, she knew it and so does everyone else. It was a snide, ugly and condescending slam. I wonder if he holds all those in the public eye to the same standard? Is he picketing the mall Santa because he’s carrying a few extra pounds?
“My God. What kind of role model is that?”
Here. Have a candy cane.
The big victory in all of this as I see it though, is that, for once, rather than being empowered by a notion of always being right, the customer was put in his place.
Whatever your job, it is true that you are a representation of that job and the company that employs you. When you have a job that puts you in the public eye, it ups the ante a little and people know it. Even the nastiest, most critical e-mails from viewers often get a “thank you for watching” response. It’s almost comical when you think about it, like we don’t understand the insult.
“Thank. You. So. Much. We really appreciate you taking the time to say so.”
You can’t just say, “you know what sucks? Your attitude!”
You can’t because everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, right? As journalists and, by God, as Americans, we embrace freedom of speech, don’t we? We know that to be in this kind of field you have to have a thick skin. Am I missing anything, contrarians? Yes. All of those things are true. Mostly though? In the eyes of most higher-ups, telling off consumers of any kind is just bad business. We want people to watch us. We want people to like us. We don’t want to alienate our viewers. We don’t want to make waves when it can all just blow over, we can all grow a tougher shell and get on with the business of doing our jobs. Right?
This is why I was so inspired by Jennifer Livingston and WKBT news director Anne Paape, who I imagine had a role in deciding to devote time in the newscast to the editorial. They looked at this situation and instead of doing all the things I just mentioned, they decided take a stand. As a rule, people who work in news are meant to keep their opinions to themselves, even if they are personally attacked. I found it refreshing that an organization would have the courage to stand up and simply say ”enough.”
The customer is not always right.