My friend recently shared a story about a striking customer experience after she accidentally left her wallet at a meeting.
When I showed up to claim it, the receptionist asked: “Do you have photo ID?”
“Yes,” I said. “In the wallet.”
“Oh,” she replied. “But we will need to see ID to return the wallet to you.”
“How about this,” I suggested. “You look at the photo ID that’s in the wallet, and if it looks like me, you give me my wallet back.”
Solving complex problems everywhere I go!
Now, my friend happens to be quite sharp-witted, and it all turned out okay in the end. But situations like this are not always so funny. They can even turn into a kind of surreal, Mobius-strip experience that recurves on itself and leaves the customer completely unserved.
How to Normalize Exceptions
Service policies are usually developed for typical situations: to fix problems, safeguard the company, and help the customer. In some companies, policies are geared intentionally to benefit customers; in others, the focus is more on the company. In either case, though, real-life exceptions don’t follow the standard logic chain. They require fresh thinking, and that can be in short supply when representatives rely so literally on policy that they go on auto-pilot.
Most reasonable people can figure out something reasonable to rectify a situation — that is, if they’re awake to what’s really happening in front of them; can recognize when they’re dealing with a true exception; and are not afraid that they’ll be criticized for going outside the normal procedures.
Assuming that you’ve already taken steps to normalize, encourage, and praise employees’ appropriately exceptional thinking, here’s a good prompt reps can use to figure out when to make exceptions to the rules:
My customer seems tense/distressed/unhappy. Is what I’m doing actually helping?
Notice that the prompt implies ownership of the relationship: It refers to “my customer” and asks a question that requires taking responsibility for a customer’s negative emotional state.
Flexibility and Common Sense Lead to Effectiveness
And if your organization hasn’t yet taken the necessary actions to ensure that neither your reps nor your customers are expected to behave like robots, now’s the time to start. It never makes sense to hit your customer over the head with your rulebook. It’s impractical at best, and at worst, potentially destructive — sort of like the classic, although untrue, story of the conflict between a senior American Navy officer and a junior Canadian shipman, as reported and debunked by Snopes.com:
Captain: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.”
Shipman: “Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.”
Captain: “This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.”
Shipman: “No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.”
Captain: “THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE SECOND-LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS, AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH — THAT’S ONE-FIVE DEGREES NORTH — OR COUNTERMEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP!”
Shipman: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”
In the end, it’s always better to find a way around policy obstacles than to run your service ship aground!
Special thanks to Deborah Grayson Riegel, Principal, The Boda Group for the use of her story.
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