Extreme Customer Service or Corporate Policy Gone Mad

AngryWomanUnited Airlines refused to help a customer who had his $1200 damage done to his guitar happen before his eyes by a baggage handler. Why? Because he missed a 24 hour reporting deadline due to advice he received from United itself. After nine months of back and forth he received no relief from the airline so he then got revenge by writing a song about it that went viral – over 10 million people saw a very negative view of the airline. http://sentium.com/a-public-relations-disaster-how-saving-1200-cost-united-airlines-10772839-negative-views-on-youtube/.

How many of us are at some time or another on the receiving end of such corporate policy gone mad?

It isn’t necessarily a large, costly issue either. Like when I went into the grocery store to return 32 empty pop cans for the 5 cent each refund. The store clerk who took my cans reminded me in no uncertain terms that store policy is that they only accept 24 cans max per day and that she was doing me a big favor by taking them this one time. My response was, “Seriously?” She became very defensive and lectured me on why their policy was so important. At the same time I was getting ready to flee her and the store, possibly forever.

In the grand scheme of things how important was it to adhere slavishly to such a policy? Her officious tone and uncompromising nature left me feeling like I was a criminaCansSml for daring to bring in eight cans over the maximum allowable limit. Was she wrong? Technically, no. This was the store policy and I was actually aware of it, I just had two cases of empties to return, one with 20 cans and one with 12. So, was I supposed to come back on separate days with my cans? Does policy trump common sense? And even more does policy trump serving the customer who spends thousands of dollars at the store every year?

Setting up policies for your businesses without thinking them through can create unintended animosity when they ar e applied indiscriminately and unthinkingly. As business owners we will say to ourselves that we must apply our policies even-handedly. Why? Is the grocery store management truly that worried that every other customer will now come in asking to return 32 cans thereby upsetting their pop can management system? We set up rules to make it easier to navigate the day. We put things into rote memory storage rather than have to think about them to make it easier for ourselves and that is when we get ourselves in trouble.

In that light can we never make an exception? Seriously? Often we set up and apply policies that may be sensible for our businesses but are they sensible applied in all circumstances to our customers? Is the negativity generated worth arguing about? It does make it easier to train employees – just do as I say and you will not make mistakes. Except that it can then turn into malicious obedience where employees will just apply your policy even knowing that it is pissing off your clientele. I happen to know the manager of the grocery store in question and I’m pretty sure if he had witnessed the event he would have taken his clerk aside and discussed the need for flexibility rather than life-or-death policy adherence.

It’s not just negativity that can turn off your customers, how about those times when a customer asks for help and is rebuffed? “Do you have any left-handed monkey wrenches?” “We don’t have any, sorry.” And the customer leaves – probably never to return. You will never know though because although the customer was not actually treated poorly she was just not helped. She left with her problem intact and you did not help her solve it. This is an opportunity missed. This is where extreme customer service can win over a customer by delighting him rather than just politely saying, “no” (many people think good customer service is just being polite).

These are three examples of policy gone mad but at several levels. United, a very large corporation, cannot control all variations of customer service application by its employees. However, they could have chosen to act sanely when given a second chance when the customer followed up over and over for nine months. Remember, most people walk away never to return when faced with customer service issues. The grocery store issue was an example of a zealous and probably very competent person who cares about her job and her company and customers but is unable to rise above the rote prescription of policy application.

The example of the store clerk is one we often do without realizing. We want to have customers leave quickly when we cannot sell them what we have to offer. Our policy is to get them out the door so we can wait on those interested in buying what we do have. But what about changing that policy? Why not bend our rules and make our policy one of helping at all costs? Why not find a solution for your prospective customer instead of quoting your rules to her or turning her away? So a potential customer walks into your store or office and asks for the left-handed monkey wrenches that you either don’t have in stock or you just don’t sell. How about finding a solution even if you don’t make a sale? First, does the customer need a left-handed monkey wrench or will a right-handed one do? Often people will prescribe a solution based on incomplete knowledge and ask for something they do not actually need. This is your opportunity to delight your customer.

If he does indeed need a left-handed monkey wrench then how about finding a source for him? Maybe you have a competitor or you have an affiliate in the business who can provide them. Perhaps you can make a personal recommendation based on direct knowledge. If not, why not look up sources of left-handed monkey wrenches in the Yellow Pages or the internet and particularly the Better Business Bureau. Then, even better why not call up that source on your customer’s behalf and make sure they have left-handed monkey wrenches available and point your customer in their direction? Then follow up with the customer and the referral to make sure everything went OK.

What have you just done? You have practiced extreme customer service. You have gotten out of the policy-adhering mindset and taken control of the transaction between you and your customer. You have solved his problem rather than making him go back to square one and start all over. What will this person tell his friends about you? What do you think will happen when he actually needs a right-handed monkey wrench? Will he go to your competitor or to you to buy it? Remember Nordstrom’s

Larry Earnhart
Alchemy Business Consulting
November 10, 2014

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