“It’s Our Policy”

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A few days ago, I ran across one of those phrases I wonder about. A lot. I wonder about it, not so much as a customer, but as someone who teaches customer service. [If this shocks you, because you know about the writing and art journaling but what is this about training? Yes, I develop and run training programs for businesses. What can I say? I have a lot of interests.]

The phrase I wonder about is “It’s our policy.” After a lot of thought, this slippery

Policy decisions from Corey Smith's Random Thoughts blog

phrase is often used as a communication shut-down and means, “We do it this way, and if you don’t like it, tough.”

I’ve also heard it used to mean “Don’t ask me for special treatment. I’m going to treat you like this because I can.” And, “I am not allowed to make any decisions, and no matter what I’d do, this is what I’m told to say or do.” And even, “Logic would dictate some other action, but I’m sticking with the hard line, and it’s my way of telling you to suck it up.”

“Policies and procedures” is part of how a company gains obedience from its workers. You violate Policy and Procedures and you get a warning or fired. I was an “employee at will” long enough to be very clear on company’s policies and procedures.

As a customer, I hope to receive treatment that shows me how the store thinks about me as a customer, how much the store values customers, and what they expect from the customer in return. For example, every store has a policy that says if I want to take something out the door, I must pay for it. Makes sense. Right after that, the policies and procedures get fuzzy. If something is mis-marked, must I pay the marked price or the scanned price? If I have a coupon, and it is expired, will the store honor it? If I drop and break something in the store, do I have to pay for it? If a purchase doesn’t fit or I just change my mind, can I return it? For cash? Store credit? What do I have to bring with me? Every store has policies that cover those cases.

What became clear to me is that a store’s policies reflect their values. If they don’t value their customers, the policies are rigid and focused on bringing money into the store, rather than customers. If the store doesn’t want people to linger or explore their items, they will have policies that don’t encourage touching, asking questions, or displays that show different ways to use items. They will have employees who don’t care about the customers comfort, but focus on applying those policies.

Pretty much, policies are a training issue. If the people who deal with the public (store employees) are given rules by people who don’t deal with the public (corporate office policy-writers), problems will arise. If the store employee is not trained to use their brain, but just trained to enforce the policies, the store will lose customers. There is a name for stores that lose too many customers: Closed.

Policies directly reflect the thinking of the people who make them. They reflect management’s assumptions and values. They reflect how much management trusts their employees, too. If employees have no discretion in applying the policies, but must look at all cases the same way, it tells the customer that management doesn’t value customers as individuals or the store employees as thinking beings.

This explains a lot about how I experience different stores. And why I have become brand loyal to some and avoid others. The policies you set for yourself, and those around you, including your art, your writing, your creative work reflect your view of yourself and your life. What do you automatically assume? What is the value that goes with it? Interesting, huh?

–Quinn McDonald teaches ethics, customer service, four generations in the workplace and other tough topics. She’s also a life- and creativity coach.


22 thoughts on ““It’s Our Policy”

  1. I thought of this post today. I was in a vision store to get my son glasses (we didn’t). They were running a promotion to get two pairs for $99. So when I went to buy the glasses, she asked if I wanted two of the same frames/prescriptions. I did not–I have a feeling his prescription will be changing soon. But it would cost $180 for just the one pair. But it seems wasteful to me to buy something I don’t need, yet the “policy” is two for $99, not half of two for $99. They had a big sign on their wall about how they will do whatever it takes to make a customer happy, but when I was told (kind of rudely) that “We don’t discount glasses,” and I referenced the sign, I got no response. I mean, none. I might have been able to think more clearly if I hadn’t had two other children to wrangle, and if the youngest hadn’t been punching me for the last ten minutes because I’d picked her up because she wouldn’t stop grabbing at things, but still. I didn’t *want* two pairs of glasses right then (in a few months, when I’m sure of his prescription, sure, but not now), and I didn’t like being told I had to get something I didn’t want or else pay nearly twice as much. So I left without glasses, feeling utterly beaten down.

    • See? Having people leave and feel beaten down is probably not this company’s idea of customer service. It’s bad training not to let smart sales staff make smart sales decisions that win loyalty. My heart goes out to you–child wrangling is such a difficult process.

    • it has, Pete. It’s acting like Blogger–if you ever had a WP account associated with the email you are using, you have to sign in to your account. I’ve asked for forum help, but that didn’t work, so I wrote to their Help Line. It will take a few days, this is a huge mess.

      • sounds like an error in the MySQL code such that it might be referencing a table it doesn’t need to. The most likely culprit is that this function is written to work either way, controlled by a variable or administrator setting, and somebody put the wrong value there.

        Or I could be a million miles off; WordPress might not even use MySQL any more!

    • I have had very few problems with WP. This is a giant fiasco–they suddenly turned into Blogger–the one I left to go to WP. To this day, I can’t post on Blogger sites unless I log in anonymously. Grrrrrrr.

  2. Years, and I do mean years ago I heard a parable that influences me still today. A man left his town and traveled a long way coming to a new city at the close of day. There was an old man sitting at the gate to the city who greeted the traveler and asked him if he was going to stay long in the area. The traveler replied It depends on the people I find in the city. The elder asked him what were the people like where he came from and the traveler replied that they were selfish, greedy and not very pleasant to be with which was why he was traveling. The elder replied, Unfortunately you will find the same kind of people here, sir, whereuopn the travelr decided to continue on his journey. Shortly thereafter another traveler came and the old man asked the same questions. The traveler replied, I was sorry to have to leave my town. The people there were most friendly and generous to strangers and neighbors alike. Whereupon the old man said I am sure that you will enjoy our city there are many people here that will make you feel right at home.
    It is not perfectly related to this topic, but yet in a very real way it is. Both in the people creating the policies and those affected by them.

    • My mom used to say, “Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus,” literally, “What you yell into the forest is what you hear back as the echo.” Or, the world mirrors what you expect. I believe that, too. But the policies that companies make are different. Those policies mirror their own values, often at the customers detriment. Even kind customers.

    • Amy, I love this story. My beloved yoga teacher recites it occasionally, and her timing is usually impeccable, reminding me that I’m in charge of my experiences. Thank you for reciting it again. 🙂

  3. From Liz Crain, who couldn’t leave a commnet. Liz’s site is http://lizcrainceramics.com/

    Here’s the comment I wanted to leave:

    For some reason, Quinn, your discussion here about stores, employees and customers found me applying your thinking to public education and schools, educators and students/parents. Here in CA, teachers are asked by the state, as policy, to use scripts and synchronized timelines to deliver core educational curricula in order to increase test performance – not necessarily student learning. It appears that is a core value now: higher scores through standardized instruction = learning. I have no idea if that happens elsewhere, but you have lead me to wonder about whether there is any valuing of customers (students/parents) as individuals and employees (educators) as thinking beings. I’m guessing not really.

    Selfishly, because I am both a humanist AND a taxpayer, I am SO glad my sons are well out of public schools. I worry about my future grandchildren. I am reluctant to automatically support education bonds now because I know firsthand that the monetary overspending on theoretical programs and consultants – not to mention lawsuits – does not equate to educational excellence but merely to “believing in our future generations” and these lousy values. New Math and Whole Language, anyone? How about No Child Left Behind?

    Sorry to run off on what seems a tangent, but to my understanding, it’s not. It all counts. Retail/Service/Manufacturing/Government/Education/Artistic endeavor: all benefit from this examination of what the hell we’re trying to accomplish for our mutual good and by what means. A vital question to ask over and over.

    Thanks for being the thoughtful, articulate picador.

  4. “What do you automatically assume?”
    I think that’s the main thing here, on both sides, for the customer, too. Do we approach the employee as an adversary? Or recognize they may be in a tough position too?. Where I live, unemployment is still high–I believe we’re 2nd highest in the country. I do believe there are people working for stores with policies with which they do not believe, but they’re bound by them in order to keep a job. And here am I, lucky enough to have money to buy something as seemingly frivolous as craft supplies for what is, essentially, a hobby. While it can be tempting to argue with the person on the register, ultimately, that’s misplaced anger. I’ve had employees bend the rules for me (let me use two coupons in two different transactions, for example), but I don’t want anyone to get in trouble for that, either.

    What DO we assume? The answer to that is ultimately how we walk through the world.

    • Assumptions–another whole set of blog posts! I’m sure that there are a lot of people who are entitled and spoiled and want a store to break every policy in order to feel satisfied. In fact, my research shows it’s about four percent of customers. We all have our own policies–and they reflect our values, too.

    • Thanks for letting me know. It’s a WordPress issue and I’m working with them. So far, what I’ve tried hasn’t worked. If you have ever had a WordPress blog associated with the email address you are using to comment, you get a notice to sign in first. I’ve tried several fixes, and one worked, but then quit. I’m sorry you couldn’t leave a comment. I missed you! You can always send me an email, I’ve added the address at the top of the post.

  5. Love it! In addition to being a shamanic healer, I also work at a well known natural grocery store in an at-will position. There are company policies, and then there are human beings who work for the company. I don’t always get the same answer, or treatment, from my team leaders; C’est la vie! I’ve found that if I uphold my personal values during the day, keeping in mind the written core values of the company which I’ve vowed to uphold, I come home mostly happy. 90% of the customers are gems, and I really enjoy those who return because I, personally, make their experience terrific. Love what you do, and truly enjoy your writing!

    • I think that’s an important part of policies–“If I uphold my personal values during the day. . .” Life is about those values. How we honor them, how we react to other values.

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