When breaking the rules can save a customer (literally)

By Paula Courtney,
CEO – The Verde Group

Earlier this year, I booked my first post-COVID trip to Europe — three weeks in Italy with my family and long-delayed reunions with friends from Europe. It was my longest trip in 30 years and I couldn’t have been more excited.

Then, two weeks before I was scheduled to leave, I got what I believed was food poisoning. The cramping was unbearable but I figured I’d weather through it. By day 12, still in pain and only a day before my flight, my family urged me to see a doctor. She ordered some blood work and an abdominal ultrasound. So I walked to the ultrasound clinic across the street at 1:15 pm. The receptionist immediately told me that (a) unfortunately they didn’t take walk-ins after 12 (b) I would have needed to fast anyway. But maybe she saw the angst and anxiety on my face or perhaps it was something else (which I’ll get to in a minute) and she asked me to take a seat.

A little while later, I had my ultrasound. The technician scanned me and found nothing. But, as I was getting up from the bed, she asked me again where I was feeling pain and decided to scan me a second time. She told me I needed to get to an ER right away. Long story short, not only did I have appendicitis, but my appendix was perforated, I had to have emergency surgery and spent six days in the hospital. No Italy. No family and friend adventures.

My first reaction, aside from disappointment, was how lucky I had been — how I managed to get an ultrasound even though I didn’t have an appointment, even though I hadn’t fasted, how the technician had to scan me twice before realizing what was wrong, how my untreated appendicitis could have led to  sepsis with a deadly consequence. Lucky, right?

But then, not surprisingly, I put my customer experience cap on and realized what a perfect example my experience was of above and beyond customer service — and, more importantly, about knowing when to break the rules.

Think about it: the receptionist who, in spite of my arriving late and not fasting, broke the rules and scheduled me for an ultrasound. And the technician who put me back on the table to inspect me twice when she could have just as well followed the rules, performed a routine ultrasound and sent me on my way.

Hire for fit. Train for skill.

Most companies train their employees to follow the rules when it comes to customer service and most of the time employees do, for fear of getting fired or sued or taken advantage of by customers. But what happens when it makes sense to break the rules? And how do you even train your employees to do that?

I don’t believe you can. I often tell clients “hire for fit and train for skill.” If you really want to embed a customer-first culture in your organization, you need to hire people who share your vision of  customer centricity, people you can trust to use their judgment to know when it’s appropriate to break the rules.

There are lots of effective ways to do this. You can, for instance, present interview candidates with case studies or a battery of questions to see whether their decision-making process aligns with your organization’s vision. Maybe their technical skills aren’t up to snuff but you can train for those. What you can’t train for is what we like to call “common sense.”

But common sense, as we know, isn’t common enough. In fact, I sometimes think common sense is a superpower. There are still far too few companies comfortable with giving their employees the latitude to break their rules. Customer-obsessed Zappos, which gives their staff complete carte blanche to make decisions that are right for customers, is a standout example. In fact, at Zappos, staff go through two interviews: the first to assess technical skills, the second to test for cultural alignment. And for Zappos, cultural fit trumps technical skills.

Publix Super Markets is another. Publix’s policy is to take back anything, no matter what, if the customer isn’t happy. Customer experience author Donna Cutting recounts how a couple once came in, asking for their money back because they weren’t satisfied with the steaks they bought because — wait for it — they overcooked the meat. The Publix butcher gave them new steaks anyway. While this kind of customer behavior is what companies worry about most, the reality is very few customers exploit generous return policies.

The key is relaxing the reins and trusting your employees to break the rules as needed can be one of the smartest ways to improve CX and strengthen customer loyalty.

Executive Vice President of The Verde Group
Dennis Armbruster