First things first: the customer is not always right*. The customer is spectacularly wrong a lot of the time, maybe even most of the time. The customer is prone to being a menace.
Enter comedian Scott Seiss, whose TikTok rants about bad customers are propelling retail workers’ angst and anger into a broader conversation about how we as consumers ought to — and ought not to — treat low-wage workers.
In one particularly viral clip, Seiss responds to an imaginary customer saying "the customer is always right."
"About what? How to piss me off? You think you're God because you went shopping?" Seiss says.
The direct, “come on, try me” energy of the performances caught on and drew huge engagement on TikTok this spring. In April, a fanmade compilation started circulating on Twitter and Facebook; that clip got NBA star Lebron James to use 22 crying-laughing emojis.
Seiss, a standup comic eager to get back to performing in-person, hopped on Zoom with NBCLX to talk more about the rush of attention and why his videos had become so popular.
“It has just been really, I don’t know, cathartic for people to watch these videos...see me ranting and raving, saying all the things that they wish they could say,” Seiss said.
It’s found great resonance with anyone who does customer service and is “fed up with being treated like crap at their jobs,” Seiss said.
As the tension is coming to a breaking point in these 15-second-or-less retail stories, in comes the “Drama” sound effect, a clip of the song “Primal Fear” by the artist James.
Seiss said he started making the videos in February 2021 because he wanted to use that sound effect.
“Without fail, that sound made everything funny,” Seiss said. “I just wanted to do it because it looked fun. It just looked like so much fun to just yell at the phone, and that’s what I’m good at, I think.”
Though he role-plays as an IKEA stock worker in the videos, he actually worked in a customer service call center for the Swedish furniture company.
Seiss faced his own sort of nightmare customers there, but for these TikToks he’ll run ideas by his wife, who has worked in a store herself. He also gets inspiration from other jobs like when he was a pizza delivery driver for two weeks.
“Literally 14 days, I quit because it was so horrible. It was way more horrific than working at IKEA,” Seiss said. “Dude, if a pizza is five seconds past when they expected, the people are losing their minds, freaking out. ... I think I literally got tipped once, like, three pennies.”
It turns out, fussy customers have a lot in common. Commenters with retail experience will often reply that they've been on the receiving end of the bad behavior Seiss describes in his videos.
Or maybe they've done that as a customer. We’re all guilty of asking someone to check in the back for an item — even after we’re told it’s not in stock, and even though there’s nothing in the back. An item showing as “in stock” online barely means anything — if the workers say they don’t have it, they don’t have it.
And you probably don’t need to shout at the workers if that’s the case.
“I think a lot of the problem stems from people thinking the workers are out to get them, or that they’re controlling something that they don’t really control,” Seiss explained.
“With someone going ‘well you just lost yourself a customer,’ it’s like, do you think you pay me? Your money doesn’t go directly to me," he added. "Or like, if you don’t like the return policy — I’m the guy they hired so you can yell at me about it, while the people that make the policy are just safe and away.”
While he’s missing the buzz of performing for a crowd, the virality has gotten a lot of eyes onto his comedy and turned into a few meetings for comedy opportunities he’s been dreaming of.
“I hope that it follows through, that it turns into something tangible. But if not, I’ll be on TikTok screaming at customers forever,” said Seiss.
“If the people that work thankless jobs are watching these and getting any enjoyment out of them, that means everything to me.”
*- “The customer is always right” is a turn of phrase popularized by American retailing titans like John Wanamaker, Harry Gordon Selfridge and others. They asserted that a successful business is one that takes its customers complaints seriously. But this maxim doesn’t address when bad customers abuse store policy, complain of mistreatment when policies are applied, or generally just make workers’ lives miserable.