Bending Rules and Delivering Service

Wasn’t that a great Writers Worth celebration? I still have some posts, but I’m not around to get them up for you, so we’ll wait until I return.

I’m still out of the office, but I couldn’t leave you without something to read, now could I? Thanks to my shoe-shopping habit, I had plenty of fodder for this post. Don’t worry — when I return I intend to give you a roundup of all the great Writers Worth posts. I may even add my own two cents. 🙂

I was in one of my favorite stores a few weeks ago (buying shoes, naturally). I approached the clerk to check out and asked about the promotional bag they were giving away with a $30 purchase. The clerk said, “Sure! Do you have your coupon?”

I said that no, I’d forgotten it.

She said, “Well, we do need the coupon because we’re tracking just how many people come in with them and how many bags we give versus how many are requested.”

I was fine with that. I then asked if I could come back with the coupon and my receipt in order to get the bag.

She said, “No, you’d have to bring back the purchases and we’d have to ring them up as a return, then re-ring them up as purchases.”

That’s where my favorite store lost me. Red tape and rules that made no sense to me. Returning and re-ringing shoes just for a free tote bag? While it may make sense on paper, customers have no idea why you’re making them jump through hoops. And frankly, stores shouldn’t be making them do so.

How often has this happened to you – you ask a clerk a question or make a request, and they answer in “store speak” – “You’ll need a querk for that”; “Did you fill out a Q-86 requisition order first?”
or; “I’d have to mark that as a poly-woozit purchase.”

No, they’re not real words. But neither are the words you often get from people who are parroting company acronyms, jargon, or code words. Employees, maybe not understanding the rules fully themselves, are repeating them verbatim to customers who probably don’t care one damn about the company’s internal processes or technical reasons why they can’t have what they want. Like I said already, it makes sense on paper, but that doesn’t mean your customers are going to understand. They’re certainly not going to like it.

My daughter likes to quote chapter-and-verse of the restaurant hostess handbook, which says customers are to be seated in a rotation fashion. The reasoning — wait staff then have a balanced workload, instead of a waiter running his legs off to serve 10 tables while his counterpart has just three tables.

On paper, it makes sense.

But if I walk into a restaurant and they seat me next to the bar where the television is blaring and the customers are yelling over it, I’m not going to want to stay there if I’m there to have a conversation. Also, I may have a bad back and can’t sit in a hard chair, thus preferring a booth. While the hostesses/hosts may think it’s rude of a customer, customers think it’s equally rude to be told “No, because I have to seat you here because I have to follow rotation policy.”

Where’s the customer in all this? We’re told that it’s “policy” that we have to fall in line and follow company policy even when it inconveniences the customer because hey, Judy here was trained to do it this way, not that way. One salesperson made the mistake of dictating to my husband that he “can’t” buy a Stickley sofa from a store in New Jersey because our local store was the only authorized one for our area. That’s just bloody stupid, and my husband told him the day he allows someone like him to dictate where he can shop is the day he stops shopping in his store.  Obviously, the man meant that no one else in our area was an authorized dealer and that the New Jersey store couldn’t openly solicit his business. Trouble in translation there, eh?

We writers have rules, too. We have boundaries around our invoicing, around our time, around our fees, and even around our time off. We’ve worked hard to define those boundaries, so it’s very easy to turn into a Cyborg-spewing tyrant when clients have emergency projects requiring quick turnaround or even (gasp!) weekend work. While I’d never tell you how to run your own business, I will say that flexibility even in the most inflexible of requests can sometimes leave a great impression with your clients. Sometimes. Always beware the client looking for someone to order around like a minion.

So how can you protect your boundaries and serve your client’s interests?

Suggest different payment options.  This can solve both the invoicing and the “I can’t afford you” dilemmas. If your client is late with a payment, don’t immediately head to small claims court or collections. Write first offering a payment schedule (including the late fees). They may not take you up on it, but if they do, you’ve turned nonpayment into payment. If they can’t afford your fee up front, you can secure the gig through the payment plan option, and you may find yourself a steadfast client. Mind you, if they say “Ooo, you’re going to have to lower those fees” like one client did to me, that’s an indication that someone has a convoluted opinion of who’s calling the shots in your business. That’s a client to walk away from.

Remove the rush fee. You weren’t really doing anything and didn’t have any pressing deadlines, but the client wanted the project in a day. So you’re really going to charge them a rush fee even though you’re not inconvenienced by it? It’s okay to say “You’re in luck! I have the spare time, so I can waive the usual rush fee for you.” You’ve just reinforced your boundaries while at the same time giving the client an unexpected break. They’ll remember and appreciate it.

Give up a few hours on a weekend. I’ve done it once last year, but it’s because I knew the job would lead to more work, and it certainly did. I spent about five hours in one weekend on the project, and the client met her deadline. That turned into four more assignments within two weeks. If you didn’t have plans anyway, consider how doing a one-time favor can pay off.

Not every client request has to be honored, but the ones you can honor can make a huge impact on your reputation and your customer relationships.The key is knowing which clients will take advantage of that one-time generosity and expect it every time. Those clients should be treated as time or money leeches and not afforded the same generosity as someone who genuinely needs your help.

In what ways have you bent the rules for select clients? Did it pay off or did it backfire?

About the author




  • Jodi May 31, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Two comments about stores. I went to return/exchange something yesterday, and the clerk wouldn't take the items out of the bag. She insisted that I had to do it.

    A friend recently had a store owner yell at her because she hadn't used her discount coupon (good for a year) right away like she was "supposed" to.

    Back to my own rules, yes I have broken them on occasion (doing it now). I think it will pay off, but too soon to tell.

  • Kimberly Ben May 31, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Rules were made to be broken. :~) I'll do it from time to time with some of my most valued clients.

    Lori, that shoe shopping escapade was unreal. What happened to enhancing the customer experience?

  • Paula May 31, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Maybe rules aren't meant to be broken, but they are made to be bent. Occasionally.

    While I often catch up on work over weekends, it's usually by choice. Fewer interrupts mean better focus, and sometimes it means I can take a bit of time off during the week. But on rare occasions when a key interviewee is only available on a weekend, or before or after normal house, I'll agree. Did it this morning because my interviewee was in the UK.

    Despite having six projects to work on, getting such an early start means I can goof off a little today. My sister is here to collect her dogs (say hi everyone – that's her working on her laptop in the next room), so we'll probably go out for lunch and have a little fun before she heads home.

    Sometimes bending the rules has its perks. If the shoe store had bent its rules, it would have kept a frequent shopper very happy. They blew a simple opportunity to generate positive feedback.

  • Paula May 31, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Oops! I mean normal HOURS, not house. Of course, mine is anything but a normal house.

  • Wade Finnegan May 31, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    Good business practice is putting the customer first. I want to build a relationship with my customers with hopes they will return with more work. Of course, there is a limit and you can't let people walk all over you.

  • Jake P May 31, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Bending rules occurs on a sliding scale in my shop — and generally only for my best, longest-term clients. Ya need to earn the bend.

    I interviewed a professional speaker a few weeks back who specializes in seminars for insurance salespeople. He made a point that when you are telling stories about "how you helped a client" during the sales process that you *not* include anything that would lead someone to the perception that you'll grease a squeaky wheel. So, while I might work a weekend for an A-level client, cut my rate on an easy job, or do a freebie as a favor, that's totally on the down-low.

  • Divya June 3, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Bring back the purchases?
    Is it so difficult for companies to understand the repercussions of such rules when a commoner like me can?

  • Lori June 4, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    You had to remove them yourself, Jodi? That's just weird! And if any manager or owner yelled at me, I'd copy him/her on the note to corporate.

    Kim, I was wondering that myself. I know the promos are to get people in the stores, but they're using them as weapons sometimes to get customers to "fall in line" and jump through corporate hoops. Stupid.

    Paula, I think I should let the company know that if they're expecting employees to parrot company rules, they're losing even the most loyal of us. Yes. I'm going to.

    Wade, absolutely right. It's one of those trust-your-gut moments; you'll know when you should bend and when you shouldn't if you're tuned in to your clients and their habits.

    Jake, exactly. I don't bend for new clients. Why should I? They've not earned my trust. And they're mistaken if they think I don't have to trust them, too. You want the rules to bend? Show me you're valued enough to deserve it.

    Sounds harsh, but I've had so many "new" (and immediately former) clients expect steep price breaks, instant results, and weekend work. Nuh-uh. I do that rarely even for my best clients.

    Divya, I shook my head, too. I told the clerk "Wow, that's a weird requirement." Didn't matter. She was doing what she was told and not really thinking far enough into the process.