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Customer Service Vs Policy Enforcement

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At times in business, these two concepts seem to be opposing forces. On one end of the spectrum is the concept of service; meeting and exceeding the customer’s needs, creating an interaction that makes them want to return to do business again. On the other end, is the enforcement of policies, which describe what we can and cannot do when providing service. How do we find a comfortable balance? How do we enforce policy under extenuating circumstances, provide what the customer wants within company parameters and/or work with what might seem to be inflexible policies? Policies are critical as they provide structure from which we can provide service. This article provides a framework to help you find the right balance.

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Ensure you and your team are on the same playing field regarding terminology.

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Policy – a course of action selected from among alternatives; a high level plan embracing the general principles and aims of an organization.

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Procedure – an established mode of conducting business; a practice; a prescribed course; steps taken as part of an established order.

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Standard – a criterion; an established or accepted level of achievement.

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Service – assisting someone else; the act of assistance. When it comes to policies, this is how we behave as we work with the customer, within the policy.

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Are all of your policies, procedures and any associated standards available in writing and formalized? If not, begin here. If your policies are informally communicated, your work is simply to write them down. If not, write down all of the ways in which your customers “connect” with you, and then determine where you need a policy and/or procedure to assist. Examples include: placing orders, refunds, cancelling subscriptions, purchasing memberships, etc. Not everything will require a policy, some activities may need a procedure, others may be best served with a standard (e.g., how we greet customers, transfer calls, time frames for returning emails, etc.).

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This step is what I usually refer to as understanding the black/white and grey. There are policies in place within business that are black and white, there isn’t a lot of room for flexibility. Black and white policies may relate to issues of safety and security for a customer. For example, if you are working in recreation at a pool you will certainly have policies in place related to diving. It isn’t acceptable to be flexible in allowing someone to dive in the shallow end because he is demanding it and you want to provide excellent service and meet his need. There may be other policies related to information and privacy that you cannot be flexible on, or there may be certain steps in a procedure that need to be followed from a legal standpoint. Other policies are grey, there is (or can be) flexibility. Here are suggestions to action this step.

(a) List your policies.

(b) Write the word black or grey beside each to identify if it is flexible or not.

(c) For black policies, identify the reasons you cannot be flexible from a business standpoint. Then consider all of the ways in which this policy supports customer service (i.e., no diving provides safety for customers, pre-requisites to a course set a customer up to succeed in further learning, etc.). Evaluate whether the manner in which you are enforcing this policy is contributing to service or whether it is perceived as a barrier (i.e., maybe staff just need to understand why the policy is in place, or time needs to be spent brainstorming how to communicate this policy to a customer in a manner that isn’t perceived negatively). Your goal is to have evaluated each policy to ensure it is relevant and has considered the customer, and that staff feel good about enforcing it.

(d) For grey policies, identify the ways in which you could be flexible (what are all of the things an employee can do/offer without jeopardizing business integrity). I call this putting the black and white around the grey. Maybe you start with situations and identify what 2-3 options might be available. Over time, you might expand these options. This process enables you to be consistent yet flexible to your customer needs. For example, in which situations can an employee provide a refund or choose to credit shipping and handling fees? The goal of this step is to ensure a sound understanding of policies that have flexibility and to provide a structure around those grey areas.

This isn’t a step that you successfully do alone, or is it a one-time event. Find ways to engage the team in policy discussions and learning such as team meetings/in services, or send out an email policy challenge of the week (“here is a situation, what would you do”), etc. When an employee isn’t sure what to do, use the opportunity to coach and build their skills. “If I wasn’t here, what would you do in this situation and why”? Over time, you will find employees come forward with their own pre-thought out suggestions and will be seeking affirmation versus the answer. If policy enforcement is a challenge, find ways to share and celebrate successful attempts.


Create opportunities to revisit your policies and procedures. Are frontline staff communicating problems serving within a policy? Has your business changed or are you hearing a lot of customer complaints related to the same thing? Revising your policies and procedures from the perspective of a customer and your business help you ensure they continue to be relevant. Perhaps a policy has become out of date, you need more flexibility, or there is a need for a new policy.

One final suggestion. The word “policy” often has a negative connotation associated with it. As customers, when someone says to us, “that’s our policy” it often is provided with an attitude of “sorry there is nothing I am going to do to help”. When enforcing a black and white policy, find ways to explain the rationale behind it from the customer’s perspective. When there is flexibility within a policy, communicate the alternatives and work with a customer to find a win-win solution.

Jayne Kowal, Director/Owner of Customer Service Works

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