“Can-Do” Rules for Happy Customers

Rules for Happy Customers

Does your organisation have a “can-do” or “cannot-do” attitude to the application of rules?

In a nutshell…

  • Blind adherence to rules can and does lead to unhappy customers.
  • A “can-do” philosophy to rules is customer-driven – where the aim is to create a happy customer
  • Many companies have unwritten and unspoken philosophies that rules are restrictions – a “cannot-do” approach to rules
  • Companies have a choice of being customer-driven or rule-driven – and the differences in customer satisfaction can be dramatic
  • There are rules that cannot be departed from, and there are rules that are guidelines. The key is for employees to be trained to recognise the difference.

I was at Changi Airport, Singapore waiting in line to buy a flight ticket back to KL. In front of me was a man from the Middle East with his wife and family of 4 children. He asked for 6 Business Class seats to KL. Six Business Class seats! That’s music to any airline’s ears! Here was a customer who clearly had the money to spend with the airline.
It went downhill from there.

The airline ticket clerk informed the passenger that there were only 2 Business Class seats available. The passenger said that he would take them, and then booked 4 Economy Class seats for his children.

He then made a request. “I’d like to take my family to the Business Class lounge.” In his eyes, this was a simple win-win request. After all, it wasn’t his fault that the airline did not have the 6 Business Class seats. He bought what was available and did not want to be separated from his family during the 60 minute wait for the flight.

The ticket clerk refused the request. It was against the rules to have these people, who were flying Economy, in the Business Class lounge. The passenger became irate, repeating that it was not his fault that the airline did not have the Business Class seats for him. The clerk repeated that it was not possible.

The customer was upset and demanded to speak to the manager. It was then that the rule of common sense prevailed. The manager okayed the family to go into the Business Class lounge. The only problem was that a high value customer had been irritated by the airline’s rigid adherence to “the rules”.

So, let’s decode this episode.

First of all, what was at stake? At the commercial end, the customer’s family would have had a few drinks and some food at the Business Class lounge. How much would that cost over that 60 minutes? RM30 (US$10) per head? So, the cost of the “extra” four people in the lounge (i.e., the ones on Economy class) would have been around RM120 (US$40).

But what was the potential loss to the airline? Have you ever avoided doing business with an organisation because of a bad story from a friend or relative? As the saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together”. There is a very good chance that the family will share its story with similarly wealthy friends and family. The statistics on negative word of mouth after a bad customer experience will verify this. And, secondly, the airline may have lost a high value client forever. All because the airline clerk felt he had to stick blindly to “the rules.”

The customer-driven rule of common sense says, “There is no economic question about it. There are no safety issues here. There are no integrity issues here. Give them access to the lounge! However, those among you who are rule and process driven will say, “Rules are rules. We will open the floodgates to people who don’t have Business Class seats wanting to go into the Business Class Lounge!”

Most organisations associate rules with the words, “cannot do”

So here is the issue. Many organisations and most employees associate “rules” with the words “cannot do”. In other words, rules are seen to be restrictions to customers being able to do something. What if the same organisations and employees associated “rules” with “can-do”, with the aim of creating a happy customer?

What difference would this “can-do rules” approach have made to the experience of the wealthy passenger at Changi Airport? My guess is that, if the airline had a “can-do” philosophy to the application of rules, and the ticket clerk was empowered to use common sense in applying them, there would have been a different outcome. The employee’s response would have been, “Yes, of course you and your family can go into the Business Class lounge. Enjoy your time with us!”

The ticket officer’s manager proved beyond doubt that the rules could be applied with a common sense “can-do” attitude. But by this time, the airline had created an unhappy customer. And this story is played out scores of times every day: Scene 1: the customer wants something that is not unreasonable and which seems like common sense to her. Scene 2: the customer service officer blindly applies the “cannot-do” rules. Scene 3: the customer gets upset and demands to talk to the manager. Scene 4: the manager agrees to the customer’s common sense request. Scene 5: the manager thinks that he has pleased the customer – but the customer walks away unhappy.

Employees don’t feel empowered to have a “can-do” attitude in the application of company rules

So here is the problem that exists in many companies. Employees don’t feel empowered to have a “can-do” attitude in the application of company rules. They encounter exceptional situations with customers where common sense should prevail and rules should be seen only as guidelines, but not as brick walls. But, they feel that they are not empowered to use their common sense. This is the situation that the ticket clerk encountered at Changi Airport. Or, staff may fear empowerment as they are concerned that they will make mistakes and be berated by their managers. The result? When faced with the exception, the unusual customer situation, opportunities to create happy customers are lost every day.

There are legendary stories of people who go “beyond the call of duty” in almost heroic ways. For example, there was the story some time ago of a Maxis employee personally bringing a SIM card to a customer at KLIA to solve an urgent need. Great story – and word spreads fast! You can create great stories everyday by telling your people that the first Rule is to create happy, loyal customers. The second Rule is that there are rules and procedures that aim to help achieve this. The third Rule is to have a “can-do” attitude when applying the rules (refer back to Rule 1). The fourth Rule is to use Common Sense e.g., is there a safety issue here? What would the negative knock-on effects be if common sense is used in applying the rules to solve the customer’s problems?

You certainly can conduct training programs to run through situations where the rules can be applied with a “can-do” attitude – and always using common sense to make the decision. And, yes, there are situations where “rules are rules.” In the case of the wealthy passenger at Changi, no, he cannot have his prize poodle sit next to him on plane. And no, he cannot smoke on the plane, nor pay by cheque at the ticket counter. In short, there are rules that must be adhered to – the “cannot-do” rules, and there are “can-do” rules which really are guidelines.

And if you don’t think that you can trust your employees to have a “can-do” with common sense attitude in applying the rules, then you need to think through your employee selection and training process. Will mistakes be made? That’s possible. But very few are “fatal errors”. When managed well, teams will learn from the mistakes.

The biggest mistake that any company can make is to create an unhappy customer

Talking about mistakes, the biggest mistake that any company can make is to create an unhappy customer when this need not have happened. In the words of Sam Walton, the customer is our boss. He or she can sack us at any time. And, this happens day in, day out, because organisations have a “cannot-do” attitude to rules.

What do the customer service people in your company do when they are faced with unusual circumstances? Does your company have a “can-do” philosophy on the application of rules, or does it have an unspoken, unwritten “cannot-do” approach, where “restriction” is another word for “rule”. Are your employees allowed to show common sense to satisfy your customers? What do your managers do if employees show common sense to create a happy customer? Do they congratulate the employee, or do they warn the employee not to go beyond the rules without their permission? Do the employees in your company feel confident to show common sense to create happy customers? If not, why not?

So, yes, there are lots of questions. And they are important questions. The answers to these questions can mean the difference between your employees confidently using common sense to create happy customers, or timidly hiding behind the rules – and creating unnecessarily unhappy customers. Just ask the wealthy passenger at Changi Airport.

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