More Like Guidelines Than Actual Rules
I love the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, where Elizabeth Swan, played by Keira Knightley negotiates with Captain Barbosa, played by Geoffrey Rush to give them a gold medallion in exchange for the pirates taking their plundering and pillaging ways elsewhere. Barbosa, thinking he also needs to take Miss Swan with him (because she called herself Miss Turner), agrees to leave. He then violates the rules of parlay, taking Swan with him rather than returning her safely to shore. When questioned, he responds:
The code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.
Sweet Life Desserts, our favorite dessert place here in Eugene, Oregon. It’s also our favorite dessert place on planet earth.
I of course waited until the day before her birthday to order the cake. I looked up their number and sure enough, the website said, “We request 2 days’ notice for orders.” Here’s how my dialog went when I called and spoke with the nice lady on the phone:
Sweet Life: Hi, this is Sweet Life. How can I help you today?
Me: Hi, I was wondering if you still have the summer berry cake available?
Sweet Life: It’s discontinued in the store but we’re happy to make a whole cake to order.
Me: Great! I’d like to order one.
Sweet Life: Perfect! When do you need it by?
Me: Well, my wife’s birthday is tomorrow. Any shot I could get it by then?
Sweet Life: We typically need two days’ notice but let me check with the kitchen staff and see what we can do for you.
[Short hold time]
I checked and we can have that cake ready by 4pm tomorrow. Does that work for you?
Me: Yes! Thank you so much.
What I didn’t tell her is that she saved me from spending a night in the dog house.
Policies vs Guidelines
Policies or rules often get a bad rap in the context of customer service, but some are valid and important. Here are some examples I came up with of good policies:
- The right security policies protect customers and employees and keep them and their information safe.
- Codes of conduct, again for both customers and employees, ensure that people are treated fairly and respectfully.
- Acceptable use policies ensure that the product, service, and resources are used for their intended purpose with respect for the other users on the platform.
- Attendance policies in customer service keep teams properly staffed to meet the demands of customers.
This just scratches the surface of different policies that exist, but I think we can agree that with very few exceptions, these are non-negotiable.
Guidelines on the other hand exist to create a consistent, predictable experience. They work like safeguards to prevent abuse and apply healthy controls. Let’s use the example of Sweet Life Desserts. The 48-hour guideline ensures that the baker has enough time to make a high-quality cake and also meet the demands of all of their other customers.
On a support team, you might set a guideline that your agents can give out a $25 credit to any customer for any reason. They can’t give out any more than that without the permission of a supervisor. Putting that guideline to the test, what happens if your largest customer that pays $50,000 per year has an issue? Do you think $25 is going to be enough? Probably not.
Where we get into trouble
Problems can result in customer service when agents don’t know what’s policy and what’s a guideline. Think about the large customer. What if the agent they speak with thinks the $25 guideline is actually a policy. They very well might stick to their guns and tell the customer, “It’s my way or the highway.”
Are we really willing to lose a customer that pays $50,000 a year over $25? Probably not. The sum total of the interactions with that customer, especially if it gets escalated, probably cost more than the credit they’re asking for. It’s important that your agents know the difference between a policy and a guideline. They must also understand the process when customers ask for something outside of a guideline (i.e. who to speak to for approval).
Back to my friends at Sweet Life. When I called, the woman I spoke with clearly understood that two days was a guideline and she knew who to ask about bending that for a desperate husband. In all honesty, Sweet Life is so good that I would have have just ordered something else if she had invoked the two day rule on me, but my wife was thrilled to have a Summer Berry Cake on her birthday.
On that note, I’m getting hungry. If you have any questions about policies and guidelines, you know where to find me.
Head of Quality
Jeremy Watkin is the Head of Quality at FCR. He has more than 15 years of experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.