Shep Hyken\'s Customer Service Blog

Customer Service Rules vs. Guidelines

Customer Service LessonLessons about Customer Service

Sometimes “company policy” drives me crazy.  Often policies are perceived as unbendable rules.  When it comes to customer service, the words policies and rules may not be the best choice of words for creating a customer focused environment.  The story I’m about to share is filled with lessons about customer service.  You’ve probably even had this happen to you.

Three of us walked into a restaurant for dinner.  A fourth person was going to join us, but he was running late.  He said to start without him.

We told the hostess we needed a table for four.  There were several open tables.  She noticed there were just three of us and asked where the fourth was.  We told her he was running late and 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.

Although we told her he was running late and we wanted to order without him, it made no difference to her.  She was following the company “policy”.  By the way, I can appreciate the restaurant’s position.  Some guests sit at the table and don’t order until the rest of the party shows up.  In that case, I understand.   Good restaurants tell their guests they will be seated at the very next table once the rest of the party arrives.  Good solution, but that didn’t apply to this situation.

Now, back to the story.  What happened next could have come from a script from Seinfeld.

I said, “Okay there are only three of us.  We need a table for three.

She said, “Sir, you’re lying to me.”

Darn, she caught me. (I’m being sarcastic.)  I said, “Just give us a table for three.”

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

This is the kind of situation that really makes my blood boil.  How many customers has she upset in the past – or will upset in the future?

Consider this:

  • The employee was just doing her job.  She was probably told by a boss not to seat incomplete parties.  In the restaurant business, this usually applies to situations where there is large party and the first person shows up.
  • She was not empowered to make good decisions on behalf of the customer.
  • She probably wasn’t trained properly on how to make those good decisions.
  • And if she was trained, whoever hired her may have made a bad hiring decision.

Let’s assume this employee is a good person, who with training can understand and deliver a good customer service experience.  It’s okay to have some guidelines and boundaries.  Be careful about calling them rules or policies.  The word “guideline” implies some flexibility.  Employees must understand that they bend to meet the needs of the customer, as long as it doesn’t cause harm to the company.

If you have the right system in place and the customer service experience is clearly defined, you are off to a good start.  Recognize that it is your people that will deliver on the experience, so choose them wisely.  Hire people that understand customer service.  Teach them how to deliver your brand of customer service. Coach them when you see opportunities to improve.  Praise them when you see them doing it right.

Shep Hyken is a customer service expert, professional speaker and New York Times  bestselling business author. For information contact (314)692-2200 or For information on The  Customer  Focus™ customer service training programs go to Follow on Twitter: @Hyken
(Copyright ©MMXIII, Shep Hyken)

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your comment that she probably was not empowered to make an educated decision that would have vastly improved your experience. While we applaud businesses that have service standards in place, they are there to make the experience better for the customer.

  2. This is a good example where “guidelines” trump “policies” (business rules). Black and white business rules within customer service environments are fraught with problems. Guidelines or, where necessary, some “fuzzy logic”, should be applied.

    In addition to recognising that while training may prevent this situation recurring, there’s obviously been no assessment of the effectiveness of the “meet and greet” process. When was it last evaluated by a competent person? (No organisation would intentionally train staff in a broken process, would they?)

    For that matter, if the competency of the employees is aligned with the culture of the organisation, then surely the business rules themselves shift from being so quantitative to being more qualitative? eg. from “that’s our policy” to “am I delivering a good customer experience?”

    Does the organisation exist to follow policies? Or does it exist because of its customers? 😉

    • Great comment, Stephen. You nail it with the last sentence: Do we exist to follow policies? Or, do we exist because of its customers? The best companies know the correct answer. (Customers!)

  3. I am working for a 2nd tribal casino in my career, and have been in the Food and Hospitality business for over 15yrs. Everyone is right with their comments. Training your staff right helps to empower your staff to make a positive experience for the guest, and does not leave them second guessing themsleves. Policy and proceedures in customer service are just that “Guidelines”. People are not robots, we have the ablity to make decisions and choices. I tell my staff our guests are why we have jobs! Without the guest we have no money coming in, and no money means no paycheck!

  4. Denise Jenkins says:

    I can’t count how many times I have been called into the office because I decided to do what the customer wanted. Yet, after all that is said and done, it makes me feel better when I know that I made the right decision!

  5. Denise – Good for you! The company should empower you to make good decisions. My rule of thumb is that if it won’t hurt the company and isn’t illegal, consider doing it. Pushing two tables together hardly hurts the restaurant we were at. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Cheryl Wilkinson says:

    Shep, I love your concept! As a leader (retired military ) now professional consulate my theory is as long as no body dies at the end of the day and the mission still gets accomplished we are good to go. Training for employees must be incorporated with customer service standards in the I processing for all new employees. Then reafirmed by leadership top down. Flexibility of “policies” is right on with customer service. When employees are motivated by “ownership” opposed by “fear” things get done better, more productive and everyone is happier at the end of the day. Aloha, Cheryl Wilkinson

  7. Suzanne Mogavero says:

    I love the article and totally agree that without the customer we would not exist. My only dilemma is being a small business owner and in the retail business customers expect to be able to return items the “Sam’s Club” or “BJ’s” (large warehouse stores, which are local here) way. These large box retailers take back anything, in any condition without any receipt or knowledge the item was even purchased there. Now with social media we have to be even more concerned with the way we handle things. My employees are reminded offen it’s not about them (don’t take it personal) its about the customer and they may not “always be right” but we need to make them feel satified when they leave our store.

    • Agree with you. The “box stores” have agreements with some of their suppliers to take back returned merchandise. And, all businesses are compared to the best in the industry. Customers are smarter than ever and know what to expect. The smart companies and retailers deliver on expectations – if not exceed the expectations.

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