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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

Rule Breaking 101

Who are your rules written for?

Published: Monday, October 2, 2006 - 21:00

Conversation at a business luncheon tends to be focused on work. The meal and service are secondary concerns. Still, clumsy service or a poorly prepared meal can ruin a productive business meeting, and a delightful meal and impeccable service can make such an experience enjoyable.
Recently, I had a luncheon meeting with a friend at a nationwide restaurant chain that prides itself on exemplary service.

I ordered first—a cup of soup and a small Greek salad. The waiter asked me if I wanted the soup and salad combo—a bowl of soup and a salad. I passed on the combo. My friend ordered the combo with a Caesar salad.

Several minutes later, the waiter delivered my cup of soup and placed a Caesar salad in front of my friend. We were surprised, and my friend asked why he had received his salad first, instead of the soup. The waiter politely responded that if you order the combo the salad comes first, followed by the soup. If you don’t order the combo, as I did, you get your soup first. We tried to explain to the waiter that, because both of us wanted soup and salad, it would seem appropriate and logical to bring both soups at the same time. Our protestations made no sense to the waiter, and he kept mumbling about how the combo is served salad first. A lot of our business conversation over the next hour kept coming back to this rather ridiculous soup-and-salad fiasco.

This episode illustrates what happens to customer service when rules are enforced to the extreme. Imagine the combo police in the kitchen making sure that no one breaks the rules and brings out the soup first, even when the customer asks for the rules to be broken, as in our case—we wanted to eat our soup at the same time.

Why did a restaurant order create so much havoc in my life? Frankly, I felt as if we were in a factory where each part of the production line had to be accomplished with split-second precision, lest the end product be unserviceable! We were being served by a human waiter, but with his unrelenting attention to a predetermined formula, a robot or a Stepford Wife would have sufficed. A simple "May I serve both of the soups at the same time?" asked of the manager would have handled this.

I had another similar confusing experience at a nationwide coffee shop several years ago. I had ordered a cappuccino and, while it was being prepared, I noticed a sign that read "Coffee refills - 50 cents." After I finished my cappuccino, I went to the counter and asked for a coffee refill. The young lady who waited on me asked the manager behind her if she could comply with my request because I hadn’t ordered a coffee originally, but had ordered a cappuccino. Surprisingly, the response was an emphatic "No." Had I ordered coffee, I could have a refill for 50 cents, but because I ordered a cup of cappuccino, I couldn’t take advantage of the offer.

I said that a cup coffee was only $1.35, while a cup of cappuccino was $3.50. The answer was still "No."

I then asked how would one know if my empty paper cup had contained plain coffee or cappuccino. The manager told me that he would be able to tell because there would be foam in my cup. This guy should work in a crime scene investigation lab. I then stated that I could wash out the foam at a nearby drinking fountain and return. This exasperated him, and he reluctantly filled my cup with coffee, after I paid him 50 cents. I contacted some other stores in the chain and was told that coffee refills are always offered, no matter the original order.

Both of these episodes illustrate a need for customer service personnel to exercise a bit of common sense when dealing with customers, even if it means slightly deviating from their rigid protocols. The goal of customer service should be to "Wow" customers, not make you feel like you’re on a game show: If you fail to adhere to their rules, you lose! In both of these instances, I felt like I was on a segment of "Survivor."

Well-run organizations have processes and rules in place to help employees to perform their functions in a standard manner. These organizations also understand that empowering employees to deviate from those processes in order to provide extraordinary service is permissible. The Ritz Carlton Hotel chain, a two-time Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Winner for whom I do some consulting, empowers each employee up to $2,000 per day to address any issues that may prevent guests from having a pleasant experience.

Empowerment is a powerful tool in exceeding customer expectations and is what separates good organizations from excellent organizations. Here are some reasons why it isn’t used more extensively:

  • Managers are afraid to let go
  • Managers lack skills to empower employees
  • Employees lack skills to understand empowerment
  • Employees don’t want responsibility
  • Management is too controlling
  • Employees lack integrity and proper training

All of these issues can be overcome when management outlines a policy whose goal is to meet and exceed expectations of customers 100 percent of the time. Anything less signals to employees that customers are a nuisance that must be herded in and out of a transaction. Additionally, management should encourage employees to devise methods that trim superfluous and unnecessary procedures and reward those employees with recognition and cash payouts. And then stand back for the onslaught of customers who are delighted and return with a vengeance.

In the meantime, I will be more vigilant when ordering soup and salad combos and will, of course, always bring a foam-free cup with me so I can get those 50-cent refills without being interrogated!


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.