Offer customer-focused reasons vs. “It’s our policy”

Charlie Steep
Creative Commons License photo credit: ckindel

For months, my youngest son has been saving for a new set of skis. Given the instant gratification culture we’re surrounded by, its a good thing to watch a kid save his shekels for a few months for something he really wants.

The timing is good for him to reach his goal, as we’ve gotten over 5 feet of snow on the mountain in the last 7 days. Skiers and snowboard riders are in heaven around here.

On Saturday, it was payday. He finally went to pick up his new skis (Elan something – you can tell I’m not a ski geek). He took them to a local ski house to get bindings mounted and fitted to his (also new) vacuum-fitted boots. The store is known for having an expert repair staff and this sort of work is critical to safely enjoying a pair of skis.

So he drops off the skis and asks if he can have them the next day. No problem, they say.

“No problem”

When he calls, they aren’t ready and in fact, it turns out they haven’t been started because the experts forgot to ask for details like weight and skier skill level – important factors in setting up bindings. He’s a patient kid (not sure where he got that from) so 90 minutes later, he goes to pick them up only to be told that he can’t have them.

Why? Because he’s not 18. 

He can’t enter into a legal contract because he’s a minor. The contract? A likely unenforceable “legal document” aka waiver of liability for injuries that might occur as a result of some problem with the repair/binding installation. 

Until a parent signs the waiver, his skis are held hostage. 

Because of that little detail, a parent (that’s me) has to stop what they’re doing and drive 25 minutes each way to the store to sign a piece of paper that is more than likely unenforceable. Why unenforceable? Because if someone has valid cause to sue and an expert can prove the binding install (for example) was the cause of an accident, this 5×9 piece of paper isn’t going to make much difference. 

Oddly enough, my son doesn’t have to get a signature to buy the skis. He doesn’t have to get a signature to buy boots, poles or bindings either. But he does have to get a signature if someone installs the bindings onto the skis for him.

It’s just our policy

When my son calls me to get his skis out of purgatory, I ask him to put the store guy on the phone.

When I question the ski shop guy, I get comments like “I just do the work” and “Its just our policy”.

Do I care if he just does the work? Do I care that “its just our policy”? Not even. When your staff answers questions like this – do your clients care? 

I’m not asking him why I have to sign the paper. I know that’s just something the store’s legal team cooked up because the industry advises they do so and I just have to tolerate it. 

I’m asking the ski repair guy why the store think it’s ok to take a kid’s money when they know the kid can’t consummate the sale and take delivery of their product.

I’m also asking them why they aren’t informing their customer at the time of the sale that picking up this item will require a parent signature. Telling them at that time, and perhaps sending them home with a form to allow for future pickups might prevent future customer service issues like this. 

Instead, I get nothing but policy speak. Bleah.

Making it better

What would have been better? Something like this:

“We require a parent signature because our management feels that most parents would want to know about purchases and repairs that have a potential to impact their child’s safety and experience on the slopes. While our legal team has their own reasons, we feel it’s important that parents are aware when we are selling certain items to their children. If you want to avoid this in the future, we’ve created an option for parents who don’t need at-purchase-time notification for each purchase. We started this program for our expert skiers and snowboard riders, like local world class snowboard rider Tanner Hall. If you trust the expertise of your kids, you can sign this special form that lets them get bindings and repairs done without parental interruption. The cool thing is that you still get a postcard in the mail each time they make a purchase covered by the agreement, so you know what’s going on.”

That’s what would have been better. 

Look, every customer realizes that businesses have to protect themselves, but they don’t have to care. 

Train your staff to communicate things in customer-centric reasoning, rather than “corporate legal” policy statements. That’s what the paperwork is for. Your staff is there to create and improve upon the relationship you have with your clients, not to spout policy.

So much for that day on the slopes

Going back to what happened with the store…By the time I drop what I’m doing and drive 25 minutes to the store to sign the waiver, it’s not even worth making the trip to the mountain because the lifts on the advanced slopes close at 3pm. What kind of taste does that leave in a customer’s mouth? My son spends more money at this store than I do. Far more:)

Bottom line: Make it easy to do business with your company. If you have policies in place that might be misunderstood by your clients or that might inconvenience them, explain them before they cause a problem and find ways to avoid the inconvenience altogether. This entire episode could have been avoided without reducing the company’s legal protection.

[audio:http://www.rescuemarketing.com/podcast/ItsOurPolicy.mp3]

“Nothing can be done about it.” Phooey.

One of the readers of my newspaper column owns a bar/restaurant.

Recently she told me that one of her bartenders accidentally rang in a $6 charge twice on a debit charge card.

They found the mistake the next day and corrected it by reimbursing the $6 to the customer.

The customer called back and said she had a problem.

Her debit card bank, US Bank in Boise, charged her $160.50 because her debit card (due to the bartender’s error) went over by $2.00.

The owner called the bank there because he found it difficult to believe the customer’s claim of the amount she was charged. The bank verified the fee and said “nothing can be done about it”.

What the bank employee’s “nothing can be done about it” comment really means is likely one of two things:

Either a not-too-customer-centric “I don’t want to do anything about it.” or “My boss won’t let me do anything about it.”

Not wise, but not unusual depending on the management involved.

Of course, my friend the bar/restaurant owner reimbursed her for the $160.50 bank charge.

But she was curious, so she called her business bank here in Montana to discuss their procedures.

She was told that at $27 per overdraft charge, it can add up as far as the computer system shows. However, if the customer were to call (as the bar/restaurant customer did, and as the bar/restaurant owner did)) and explain the errors (restaurant wrongfully double charging, and only $2.00 over her limit) the bank would waive those fees.

I’ve had experiences with this same bank where checks were accidentally written on a closed account. Once the check amounts were paid, the fees were refunded.

In other words, they have a policy (a good thing), and they have some automation in place (usually a good thing) but they also have a human side as well.

A very good thing.

There’s nothing wrong with having strong policies in place. And there’s nothing wrong with using automation to help run your business (I’m the last one you’d find telling you not to automate), but you should always leave room for the personal touch.

There are some businesses that realize this and make a point of empowering their people to make a decision that is right for the company and the customer.

Yours should be one of those.