Great customer experience sometimes requires breaking the rules

Computer-says-no service can drive buyers away. Let staff use their initiative, says John Sills.

by John Sills
Last Updated: 14 Aug 2019

A few weeks ago, whilst spending a traditional middle-aged Sunday wandering around furniture shops whilst most people were still in bed, I was reminded how much good customer experience still relies on individuals standing in front of the rules to do what’s right for their customer.

The day started really well. We’d had our eye on this chair for a while, and even better, when we got to the shop, we found the chair we wanted was half price because it was ex-display.

Comfort test done, I went to pay for it before someone else could snatch it from our grasp. And that’s where the problems started.

"I’m sorry sir, because it’s ex display, we can’t deliver it. You have to take it home – today."

Not ideal. Particularly because we have quite a small car, quite a tall toddler, and quite of lot of junk that the toddler seems to have gathered in the back of the car without us noticing.

Suddenly the dream of a perfectly comfy half price chair to sit on for the next 20 years was in danger of slipping through our fingers. But we presumed there must be a way to do this; the company must be used to this situation.  

However, instead of an easy answer, what followed was a fairly bizarre back and forth with the team to try and work out whether it would be possible for me to actually give them my money for a product they wanted to sell, or not.

"Can I take the chair out to the car (parked in their car park, right outside the store) to see if it will fit?"

"No. You have to buy it first."

"If I buy the chair, take it outside, and it doesn’t fit… can I bring it back in a get a refund?"

"No, no refunds on ex-display furniture."

"If I buy the chair, take it outside, and it doesn’t fit, can I bring I back in until I’m able to collect it during the week?"

"No, you have to take it today." 

By this point, I was living in one of those puzzles with a fox, a chicken, and a bag of grain. There seemed like there might be a way to make his happen, but they really didn’t want me to buy this chair. (Unlike my son, who was refusing to move from the chair and yelling "this is our chair, you can’t have it" to any other prospective purchasers who even so much as looked at it in an admiring way.)

So I decided to take the risk and buy it, confident that with some careful chair leg removal, and leaving my family in the store, I could get the chair in, get it home, and return triumphant an hour later. I handed over my card, paid for it, and hoped I was right.

But there was still time for one more wonderful example of how sticking rigidly to the rules creates a truly terrible customer experience.

"Could someone help me carry it to the car, please?"

"Yes! Of course we can. But only as far as the door."

So the helpful assistant carries the chair to the front of the store with me, then puts it down and watches as my wife and I struggle to take it the three metres from the door to the car, open the boot, and balance it there to remove the legs, all whilst trying to stop our toddler running out in front of the other cars that are finding their own parking spaces.

For any large organisation to be successful, it needs to have processes and policies in place to ensure a consistent delivery of what it offers. But rules can’t possibly account for every scenario that might occur, with journey maps often built around an averaged journey, not accounting for the myriad of moments that need reacting to every day. This leads to customers being frustrated and colleagues being embarrassed and apologetic, knowing what the simple solution is but having to give a ‘I would if I could’ response.

The best organisations understand this, providing guidelines but giving their people the freedom to use their initiative and common sense to do what’s right in the moment, for that customer. If you recruit well, and trust your team to do what’s right, then both your colleagues and customers will be happier. And if not, your customers will go elsewhere – and you colleagues might, too.

John Sills is Partner and Managing Director at The Foundation. You can find him on Twitter @johnJsills, or on his blog at

Image credit: Tim Mossholder/Pexels


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