The principle is that at some levels, business is simple: Take care of your customers and they will take care of you.

The principle may be simple, but its application can be challenging. Many managers tend to be into command and control, as they are required to deliver certain results on a regular basis (the bottom line can be very unforgiving), and there is a natural human tendency to want to have direct control over that for which you are responsible. Managers become managers because they are good at controlling things, and one way you control things is by creating policies and procedures. The challenge is when these policies and procedures get in the way of the basic mission of the organization: Taking care of your customers.

The Story
We were in Toy “R” Us on Times Square in Manhattan. It’s three stories high, featuring a Ferris wheel in a center atrium. As with many stores in Manhattan, the place is designed as a flagship store with the intention of putting the Toys “R” Us brand on display. Because of its incredibly high-visibility location, the Times Square Toys “R” Us store is always packed with people. I generally avoid this area of New York City because of its crowds, but this day I was on a mission: A few days before, American Airlines had managed to lose my wife’s luggage (another customer service story), and with it, the all-important baby stroller. Per Google, Toys “R” Us was the closest location that offered promise of a replacement.

And there, amidst all the plastic fantasies, was a virtual El Dorado of baby strollers, every make and model a loving parent could desire. We ooh’d and aah’d, and finally found one that fit our purposes. We deposited Junior in it where he nestled happily. It was a sale.

Then our troubles began:

“Not sure we have that one in stock”

“Sure you do. Here it is. We will take this one.”

“Can’t sell you that one. It is the floor model.”

“We don’t mind.”

“Can’t sell you that one. It is the floor model.”

“Why not?”

“It’s the floor model.”

“Okay, it’s the floor model. Why can’t you sell it to us?”

“That’s our policy.”

“Okay, that is your policy. Why is it your policy?”

“If we sell the floor model, we won’t have anything to display.”

“Why would you want to display something you don’t have to sell?”

We realized that this Alice-in-Wonderland conversation was leading nowhere, so we left, hailed a cab, and headed further south to BuyBuyBaby on 25th Street and 7th Avenue. We were in and out of BuyBuyBaby, happily pushing Junior in his baby stroller, in about half the time we spent in Toy “R” Us.

For purposes of brevity, I’ve abbreviated the Toy “R” Us interaction. Suffice it to say that it involved quite a bit of standing around, waiting for inventory to be checked, conversations with a Lissette, who claimed to be in charge of the entire store, and who uttered the infamous words:

“If you don’t want to wait, you can go somewhere else.”

Mind you, this was not an untrained, entry-level, first-day-on-the-job clerk. This was the person Toy “R” Us deemed worthy of stewardship of an entire flagship store.

We tried to give Toy “R” Us our money. We were practically trying to force them to take it. We were trying to sell them on selling to us! They most adamantly did not want our business. It was almost as if Toy “R” Us was conducting a clinic on how to send customers to their competition, not just for a single transaction, but for life.

The Take Home
Celebrate customer service. Principles must trump policy, and we should remember to honor the spirit, not necessarily the letter, of the policy.

Hard almost always drives out soft. Unless you make a consistent practice of celebrating customer service, your rules and regulations will overwhelm it. It is all too easy for people to major in minor things, adopting a can’t-you-see-I’m-busy attitude when a customer with a problem shows up. And it’s too easy to quickly forget that customers are the real reason that a business exists.

How to Celebrate Customer Service?
People remember best by stories. When you witness associates doing something extraordinary, hold them up as customer service heroes. Your actions must align with your words. As a leader (and we are ALL Leaders to someone, and I’m a firm believer in 360-degree leadership), you are always on stage. Make sure your Team Members know that they will never get in trouble for any good-faith effort to honor the spirit of a policy to help a customer.

I try to learn from every customer experience I have, good or bad. I always ask myself, “How does this apply to my organization? What can I learn from this? How can I ensure that my customers are well taken care of?”

Customer service does NOT mean giving away the store. After all, business must operate at a profit to survive. But customer services does mean that EVERYONE, from the CEO to the front line clerk on her first day, are
– keeping in mind the spirit behind the letter of every policy
– aware that principles should trump policy
– looking for ways to make every customer feel special
– finding ways to celebrate the customer
– taking pride in being able to help
– able to give customers a reason to smile and come back