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A tale of policy gone awry

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Sometimes “company policy” just drives me crazy. It’s easy for company policies and guidelines to be misunderstood as unbendable rules. When it comes to customer service, the words “policy” and “rule” may not be the best choice of words for creating a customer-focused environment. The following story is filled with lessons about customer service. (Maybe this has even happened to you.)

Recently, I went to a dinner at a restaurant with two friends. A fourth person was supposed to join us, but he was running late, so he told us to start without him. We told the hostess we needed a table for four. When she noticed there were only three of us, she asked where the fourth was. We told her he was running late and that we were going to order without him. That’s when she said, “I’m sorry. We can’t seat you until your entire party is here.”

Now, I can appreciate this restaurant’s position. Some guests will sit down and refuse to order until the rest of their parties have shown up. In such cases, I can understand the need for a rule. Sometimes a restaurant will tell their guests that they will be seated at the very next table once the rest of the party arrives — an acceptable solution. But this did not apply to us. We told the hostess we wanted to order without the fourth member of our party present, but this made no difference to her. She had been programmed to follow company policy. Period.

But back to the story — what happened next could have come from an episode of “Seinfeld”: I said to the hostess, “OK, then, there are only three of us. We need a table for three.”

Her response? “Sir, you’re lying to me.”

Oh, darn! She caught me! So I said, “Please just give us a table for three.”

I thought for sure she would continue to argue with me. After all, she was determined to follow the rules and she had just called me a liar. But she didn’t. Instead, she grabbed three menus and immediately seated us at a table…with four chairs!

This is the kind of situation that really makes my blood boil. How many customers had this hostess upset in the past? And how many will she upset in the future?

Consider the following:

  • The hostess was just doing her job. She was probably told by her boss not to seat incomplete parties. In the restaurant business, this usually applies to situations in which a large party is expected but only the first person has shown up.
  • She was not empowered to make a good decision on behalf of the customer.
  • She probably wasn’t trained properly on when and how to make good decisions.
  • And if she had been trained, she may have been the wrong person for the job to begin with.

Let’s assume this hostess was a good employee, one who with training could have understood and delivered good customer service. It’s fine to have guidelines — just be careful calling them rules or policies. The word “guideline” implies flexibility, and employees must be empowered to meet the needs of the customer as long as it doesn’t harm the company.

My advice? Start with a clearly defined system of customer service, but recognize that it is your employees who will be delivering that service, so choose them wisely. Hire people who understand what customer service is, then teach them how to deliver your brand of customer service. Coach them when they need improvement, and praise them when they do it right. You don’t want an inappropriate “policy” to get in the way of delivering the best customer service possible.

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Shep Hyken is a professional speaker and best-selling author. For more information on Shep’s speaking presentations, call 314-692-2200, email [email protected] or go to


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