Breaking Policy
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Breaking Policy

Q: "I will ask yet again: Can I have the check now please? We just want to get out of this restaurant already." — Steve

A: The above exchange occurred over the weekend when my brother, my wife and I went out to eat at a nice restaurant. It turned out to be one of those terrible dining experiences we have all been through at one time or another. Everything went wrong — bad service, cold food, wrong orders, etc.

But it was when the young waitress started crying at our table that we new it was time to go.

We actually should have left much sooner. When we first walked in we were seated at a "special" table, even though the restaurant was fairly empty. Soon, the manager came up and pointed out that if we wanted to stay at that table we would have to pay an 18% gratuity, per the sign on the table. When I pointed out t they were the ones who sat us there, she didn't care and actually made us move — to a different part of the empty restaurant.

It was a Seinfeldian moment, and I could just hear Jerry say: Who are these people?

How do they stay in business? Since when did policies become more important than customers?

I have a friend, Steve Little, who is a great speaker. Steve has a signature story that he calls "The Milkshake Moment" (which he actually turned into a book) that goes something like this:

It was the end of a long day of travel. He had been in airplanes, airports and taxis all day. What kept him going was the thought that at the end of the day, after he checked into the hotel, he would get to order one of his beloved vanilla milkshakes. So he finally gets to the hotel, checks in, calls room service, gets "Stuart" on the line, and orders his milkshake.

Stuart: "We don't make milkshakes, Mr. Little, I'm sorry."

Steve: "Stuart, let me ask you a question. Do you have vanilla ice cream?"

Stuart: "Sure we do, Mr. Little!"

Steve: "And do you have milk?"

Stuart: "You bet, Mr. Little!"

Steve: "Well then Stuart, put them together in a blender and please send it up to me."

Stuart: "But we don't make milkshakes, Mr. Little!"

In his speeches, Steve then says to the audience, "And I have one question for you — Is Stuart stupid?" It always gets a big laugh, and it does so because: 1) Steve tells a great story, and 2) we can all relate.

How many times have you encountered a business that seems far more interested in following their own rules and procedure than in making you happy, even when it would be a simple thing to say yes to you instead of no? Too many times, I know.

Stuart's problem, and the problem that the manager of the restaurant had, is two-fold.

First, they obviously were not empowered enough to be able to bend the rules, even slightly, and even when it would have meant keeping a customer. So in one sense, the problem is not theirs, it is that of the owner and their managers. Clearly they worked in environments that did not allow them to make smart, independent decisions.

Does your business empower your employees to be smart, rather than slaves to rules? If not, that is really something to noodle on.

Second, it also seems obvious that the culture of the businesses in question, and that of many similarly rigid businesses, is not a customer-centric, positive one. I have said it before and I will say it again — if you want to stay in business, if you want to thrill your customers, if you want to succeed in this tough economy, then the answer is YES.

Can we please stay sitting at this table and pay whatever gratuity we think is appropriate? Yes. Can you please combine the milk and ice cream and make me a milkshake? Yes. Sure, you have to have rules and policies and follow them, but it is equally true that mediocre companies would rather follow the rules than follow their customers.

The answer is yes.

© 2010 Steven D. Strauss,