When Customer Policy clashes with Customer Reality

If you work with customer facing personnel you have likely heard something like: “Well, what I did was bend the rules, and made my customer happy. Just because the system wouldn`t let me give her cash back, that didn`t mean I couldn`t do a cash payout under miscellaneous expense. Now, I obviously explained myself on the comment section of the payout. The bottom line here is, we kept this customer happy, and most managers would have said they couldn`t do that for them. Decisions like this keep customers coming back, and we didn`t lose any more than what we would have by giving her a store credit.”

The scenario described above is all too common in the world of customer service. A company`s customer service team may operate based on a set of typical customer interactions. Policy or technology may not allow for a given exception to the rule, and suddenly the employee is faced with a conundrum. Front-line employees are instructed to adhere to the original policy, while at the same time expected to provide the best possible customer experience. If a customer comes along with a request that falls just outside the technology system and the letter of the law, then what is the employee to do?

Just about every customer interaction involves this triangle of seemingly disparate interests. The company wants to please its customers while at the same time improving its bottom line. The customer wants what she wants from that company’s products or services, with a minimum of effort. The employee stands between these two entities, wanting both to follow the rules and please the customer.

In our case study above, it`s the customer that the employee chooses to please, and thus the company policy gets pushed aside to accommodate this choice. Unfortunately, the employee may be taken to task for bending the rules, and may grow frustrated that his efforts at going above and beyond to ensure a great customer experience aren`t more appreciated. In our experience we find that this pressure results in high employee turnover, ultimately increasing costs rather than controlling them.

The problem is that these three points of the customer experience triangle are pointed away from each other, when really the points should be pointing towards the most central priority: the customer experience.

Maritz Research, which surveyed nearly 2,900 employees across several industries, found that, while they generally enjoy interacting with customers, “employees often feel their hands are tied by corporate technical systems and policies that focus on bottom-line needs rather than those of the customers they are paid to serve. Furthermore, few employees feel they are recognized for providing great service to customers.”

According to the survey, only eight percent of employees say their company`s policies and procedures make it easy to satisfy customers and just 13 percent say they have the authority they need to respond promptly to customer problems and requests.

Here are some additional statistics from the Maritz Research employee engagement study that indicate a need for companies to evaluate their customer service culture, or lack thereof:

  • Only 11 percent of employees say policies, systems and procedures at their company support the delivery of outstanding customer service.
  • Nine percent say their company frequently seeks suggestions for improving customer satisfaction from employees who have regular contact with customers.
  • Ten percent say their company sets specific goals for achieving and improving customer service and satisfaction.
  • Eight percent say their company has effective formal programs and processes for improving customer satisfaction.
  • Ten percent say their company provides effective training to support excellent customer service.
  • Seventeen percent say they completely understand the values that their company wants to represent to its customers.

Companies need to rethink their approach to customer policy-making, starting with understanding the customer journey. Every task that a customer wants to accomplish should be visualized in detail, representing systems, processes and policies behind each task to ensure company guidelines, people and technologies are working in concert with best practice customer experience as the paramount objective.

Flexibility needs to be built into the system so that employees are allowed not only to bend the rules to please a customer, but are actually rewarded for these efforts when they result in customer retention and loyalty. The word “empowerment” is thrown around a lot with respect to front line employees. It still has a long way to go to be the accepted reality across industries. Leadership needs to listen to the front line and enable them to do their best work. Communications around the customer experience should flow openly throughout the organization, and adopting a test-and-learn culture can also contribute to a successful customer-centric culture.

So how do you know where you are in this equation? Measuring the Voice of the Customer via surveys and focus groups has long been the way for companies to try to determine where they stand. But without the other two points of the triangle, Voice of the Employee and Voice of the Institution, they are missing the whole picture.

Voice of the Employee surveys and shadowing allow company leadership to see the customer experience from the front line, to see where technologies and policies fail. Witnessing first hand an employee forced to make the choice between angering and perhaps losing a customer or sticking to the rules can be a powerful learning experience.

Voice of the Institution surveys review operations, processes, information and technology, enabling company leadership to take a closer look at their policies with an eye towards how these affect both the customer and the employee experience.

Only by bringing these three voices together, with the goal of improved customer experience at the center, can a company truly call itself customer-centric in word and in deed.

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