Should employees break the rules to help customers?

PRISM Consulting (UK) Ltd
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 This was my answer to a question posted on Quora, but I shamelessly reproduce it here because I think the challenge is important and would welcome your opinions:

QShould employees break the rules to help customers? 

(Context: "We all love the shop assistant or call centre employee who goes the extra mile tohelp us. But when these employees' actions use their organisation's resources or break its rules, do they benefit or damage the organisation?")

A: The short answer is 'No'.

If the company has adopted a customer-centric vision and objectives, 'going an extra mile' should be the rule and not the need to break rules. Everything that a rule-breaking customer-friendly frontline employee does to exceed customer expectations should be planned and embedded in process design and process governance. All systems should adequately support it, and all employees should be trained (and motivated!) to behave in such ways. Then there is no need to break rules. What is perceived as exceptional (from a customer viewpoint) should be just the discipline and 'way we do things here'.

If, on the other hand, none of this is in place (processes are not designed and employees are not trained to exceed expectations) - as 'heroic' as rule-breaking may seem, it should be discouraged as it almost certainly damages shareholder value. A company with no customer-centric vision and DNA is most likely to generate value (for both customers and shareholders!) through an operational excellence model, by maximising efficiency and minimising costs. This allows such a business to compete on price (customer value!) while sustaining meaningful margins (shareholder value). Anything that disrupts efficiency and cost reduction is harming both customers and shareholders, and has no place in best practices.

As far as employee sympathies and emotions are concerned, in the former model (customer centric company) motivation is key: customer and shareholder value must translate to employee value, too: employees are an equally important stakeholder in the value chain.

In the latter case (operationally efficient company), employees should be well informed that they are doing customers a favour by not going extra miles. By adhering to discipline and efficient processes, they enable the company to offer competitive prices - which benefits customers. Despite the priority of lowering costs, some of the savings should still benefit and motivate the employees (rewarding efficiency, rather than 'extra miles') for everyone's benefit.

Finally, there are companies obsessed with cost-cutting, which do not pass any of the savings to customers (or to employees - except Management). They still charge high prices, while treating customers (and employees) poorly. Unfortunately such companies exist (examples, please?!) and they probably deserve the kind of rule-breaking and heroic customer advocacy that finds its way into urban myths (and even some Hollywood scripts).

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