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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Is the Customer Always Right?

Clare Bartlett

Brad is a production engineer at a bicycle company. Part of his job includes inspecting broken bikes and drafting the design plans for their repair.

One day, Brad receives instructions from his supervisor to repair a bike whose brake cables had snapped. When Brad inspects the bike, he notices the cables had snapped because they were made from a low-quality material. He suspects that this bike had been custom designed, and that the customer simply did not know what materials would be best suited for the brake cables. Therefore, when Brad drafts his design plans for the repair of the bike, he incorporates a more durable material for the cables.

When Brad goes to repair the bike, he finds out the customer had specifically requested that the bike be repaired, but no aesthetic changes should be made to the bike. Brad’s design for the bike will change the look of the bike, but it will also make the bike more durable. When Brad goes to his manager and asks him what to do, his manager tells him that “the customer is always right” and he should repair the bike as the customer requested.

Brad knows he could repair the bike according to the customer’s wishes, but if he does, the bike will break down again in a few months, perhaps dangerously. However, if he implements his design improvements, he risks going against his manager and the wishes of the customer.

What should Brad prioritize? The customer’s safety or the customer’s desires?

Clare Bartlett was a 2014-2015 Hackworth Fellow in Engineering Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

August 2015

Aug 26, 2015