“Is It Good Business to Allow Associates to Break or Bend Rules for Customers?” by Tom Ryan via Retail Dive plus 20 Retail Experts weigh in on this discussion

“Is It Good Business to Allow Associates to Break or Bend Rules for Customers?” by Tom Ryan via Retail Dive plus 20 Retail Experts weigh in on this discussion

When retail employees go “above and beyond,” which often involves deviating from organizational rules, it has been shown to enhance customer loyalty for the store. New university research shows it can also lift engagement for the infracting employee.

“Customers clearly recognize when employees take risks to be helpful, and research shows that pro-customer rule breaking has desirable customer outcomes,” wrote the study’s authors, Irene Kim of the University of British Columbia; and Yujie Zhan at Wilfrid Laurier University, in the Harvard Business Review.

Examples of such infractions include:

  • A retail employee allowing a customer to return an item a few days beyond the 15-day return policy; 
  • A salesperson arranging for a product to be repaired free of charge after the warranty has expired; 
  • A restaurant server offering a complimentary dessert or beverage.

HBR reported that Prof. Kim and Prof. Zahn, across two studies, also found employees who broke a rule in this manner felt more autonomous, competent and connected to their customers. The professors wrote, “These employees were less emotionally exhausted, more satisfied with their job, and were more likely to share with their organizations their concerns, ideas, and suggestions to improve existing rules and practices for customer service.”

Potential downsides to “pro-customer rule” violations were found to be “relatively minor” although manager support was necessary for dealing with “entitled customers” or those who pressure employees for preferential treatment.

In a column for Inside FMCG, the Australian retail publication, Gary Mortimer, a marketing professor at Queensland University of Technology, said some training is required to set the parameters for appropriate “customer-oriented deviance,” as the reasons for range from helping customers to improving job efficiencies and avoiding shopper meltdowns. “Setting parameters provides team members with some guidance and flexibility, but also surety that they would be in trouble for going outside company norms,” he said.

One example of where limited pro-customer rule-breaking as part of company policy has been successful is at Ann Arbor, Michigan deli Zingerman’s. Rule-breaking is part of Zingerman’s success. Thedeli does, however, limit employees to only providing partial value for customers who bring in expired coupons. Co-founder Ari Weinzweig tells Rice Business, “I’m not saying break every rule every time. Part of leadership is knowing when it’s okay to break them.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see more benefits than risks to encouraging retail associates to “break the rules” to support customer service? What guidelines would you have for such practices?

Mark Ryski, Founder, CEO & Author, HeadCount Corporation

Empowering employees to serve customers is powerful — even if it slightly offends company rules. When an employee goes outside of the rules to the benefit of the customer, customers will feel appreciated and more grateful, and ultimately this can translate into loyalty. That said, for this to be effective, employees need to have the experience and good judgement to decide when and what rules they may break to serve the customer.

Gary Sankary, Retail Industry Strategy, Esri

For most retail encounters, serving the customer should be the most crucial consideration. If this means bending a rule, I think it’s appropriate and the customer will appreciate it. I recognize this can be tricky. There will be customers (and some team members) who will take advantage of such policies in ways such as making excessive returns. These should be dealt with through training. Honest employees will feel empowered to make decisions to help customers. They also need to know how to spot fraud or dishonest actors and know when not to be so accommodating.

I think the benefits of making decisions that err on the side of the customer outweigh the exposure to fraud.

DeAnn Campbell, Chief Strategy Officer, Hoobil8

A smart company should train their employees to be brand ambassadors and, as such, trust them to have the best interests of the company in mind as they interact with customers. When an employee is allowed to understand the goals, profitability and realities of the business they work for and feel trusted to make smart choices, magical things happen. Those companies are far more likely to thrive even through tough economic times. Employees are far more likely to stay for the long term, customer satisfaction and repeat business go up and profitability strengthens. Too many retailers only train employees to do the tasks specific to that job, rather than letting them in on how the company works as a whole, how customer actions tie directly to profitability, or how that employee connects to the whole. It’s easy to underestimate employees, but it’s more often the training system that is the weakest link.

Mark Self, President and CEO, Vector Textiles

Way more benefits. Empowered employees are GREAT for loyalty and business overall, period. Plus, I believe the time is right for some “rule loosening” given all of the automation consumers are faced with, constantly.

Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

I agree with Mark. My equation for employee rule bending is: empowerment before education equals chaos.

Andrew Blatherwick, Chairman Emeritus, Relex Solutions

There is nothing better than getting that exceptional service from an employee that goes beyond the normal rules. It makes you feel really good about the retailer. The problem is controlling it and making sure the employees know what is allowed and what absolutely is not. Also there must be training to show when employees can do this–if it is used all the time then it is no longer special. Good staff training can make this a very powerful tactic.

Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

There is huge benefit to empowering employees to “break rules,” although I’d call it something different. We must train employees and empower them to make customer-focused decisions. Teach them where the line in the sand is, and let them know they can go right up to it, but can’t go over it. Give them examples. As employees get close to that line, use these interactions as teaching moments for other employees..

Lee Peterson, EVP Thought Leadership, Marketing, WD Partners

Short answer: yes! There’s a restaurant company here whose policy is “the answer is yes” towards customers, and they’ve grown 10-fold over the last few years. With the proliferation of robot calls and infinite layers of BS to try and speak to someone at companies today, flexibility will be key to customer satisfaction going forward–especially in one-on-one human scenarios.

Richard Hernandez, Merchant Director

I am all for empowering store associates even if it means bending the rules on occasion. I don’t want to lose a lifetime of customer’s loyalty because they didn’t have the box when they returned the product. Conversely, you would also hope a customer doesn’t take advantage of the associate bending the rules.

Brad Halverson, Principal, Clearbrand CX

Love it. This is a key reason why good employees would want to work for you, at your store. Everyone loves a boss/owner who lets them take care of the customer and do right by the business.

Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

“Some training” is required? Seriously? This isn’t the Ritz-Carlton we’re talking about. It’s a retail salesfloor where many associates sell from their own wallets. If there is a way to skirt a policy, many will. If it is something on an occasional basis – that’s what managers are there to take care of.

Of course, employees who are able to do as they see fit will feel better about their jobs, but without significant training on the guidelines, you’re opening the Wild West for many retailers.

Ryan Mathews, Founder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting

I think the best answer to this was the old Ritz-Carlton rule. Spell out in detail exactly what an employee is allowed to do in terms of “rule breaking” — just don’t tell the customer it’s standard practice. One night I was in a Ritz-Carlton bar with a client who had been grossly over-served. This was in the days when you could still smoke in bars. My client went into some long drunken speech to our waitress about how much he loved the ashtray–don’t ask me. I was sober. Being “clever” as only a really drunk person can be he insisted that he wanted to take the ashtray home. Ten minutes later the waitress showed up with a box held together with a huge ribbon. Inside? Yes, you guessed it — an ashtray. Turns out the hotel’s policy was to do almost anything a customer asked, within the bounds of legality, sanity, and certain cost parameters. The next morning my client phoned me. He had a terrible hangover and couldn’t figure out why he had an elaborately wrapped ashtray. The waitress got out of a potentially ugly situation, my client got his ashtray, and I got this story to pass along.

Chuck Ehredt, CEO, Currency Alliance

This is an important question, because “relationships” are built between two entities that adapt to the situation. Being too rigid with fixed rules often prevents employees from adapting to unforeseen situations and best serving the goals of the company while trying to meet customer expectations. Of course there should be limits to what can be done, and the employee should have a sense of the lifetime value of the customer before delivering an exceptional service.

David Naumann, Marketing Strategy Lead – Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon

From a customer satisfaction perspective, there are definitely more benefits to sales associates “breaking the rules” to improve customer service. When customers know that you are making an exception for them they will feel more appreciated, which may contribute to more brand loyalty. The biggest risk for rule breaking is abuse by associates “sweathearting” their friends, especially in restaurants.

Kenneth Leung, Retail and Customer Experience Expert

The best customer experiences are often the ones that the associates goes out of their way and bend the rules a little especially when they are too prescriptive. I think it depends on the operating margin of the business also.

Craig Sundstrom, CFO, Weisner Steel

Rules should be set up with sufficient flexibility that they don’t need to be”broken”, which is perhaps what is meant by the somewhat oxymoronic phrase bend them. Nordstrom long had – hopefully still has – captured this by the ‘Rule’ being “use your best judgement”. Of course this requires associates capable of exercising good judgement (by their own initiative); many can’t do that, which brings us right back to why companies set up rules in the first place.

Katie_Riddle, Global Retail Strategist, Verizon

Creating empowerment for employees to use their own judgement makes for more satisfied employees and happier customers. It allows employees to go the extra mile, which feels good to everyone. But training is important to developing judgement.

Brad Halverson, Principal, Clearbrand CX

Employers like Zingermans, Nordstrom, and Bombas allow employees to push the limits because they know it’s good business.This requires a culture and commitment to lead with common sense, and trust by operating with a basic framework.

Does anyone really enjoy working where the fabled “Sales Prevention Manager” is allowed to build layers of approvals or encumbered risk training systems which only stifle people doing right by the majority of customers?

Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph’s University

Some terrific comments, as usual. Weighing in late but want to suggest an alternative to the concept of breaking or bending the rules. Instead I recommend companies review every customer rule & ask a simple question, “does this rule serve the customer?” If the answer is no, get rid of the rule. Why not develop customer friendly rules that allow for additional days to accept returns, repair an out of warranty product or provide a complimentary desert or beverage?

Georges Mirza, VP Product Management & Advisory, ComTask

Hiring the right employees and empower to do the job starting with situational decision-making. This is how customer loyalty is built. With customer service it is very situational and by going above and beyond you build up loyalty with that customer. What would you prefer, turn down a return because the customer was late due to life event, or gain a customer for life by showing a little understanding and compassion?

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