Branson: Sometimes you have to ignore the rule book

The rules should not become an excuse for poor customer service or an obstacle to great service.

My recent column on the importance of establishing an ethos of strong customer service that extends all the way from the CEO’s office to the front lines touched a nerve for some readers. Two questions are typical of many of the responses I received: “How far should you go to please a client? At some point, there’s a risk of compromising your business. How do you keep customers happy without getting hurt in the process?” and “Must a company be governed by internal written rules and regulations?”

An organization must establish a clear framework employees can refer to when carrying out their duties, and that framework will involve written procedures and rules — particularly when cash and accounting are at issue. That said, however, sometimes rules really are made to be broken: the rule book should not become an excuse for poor customer service or an obstacle to great service. Almost everyone has at some point experienced a situation where a customer service representative has blamed the rules for his inability to help.

If your company is going to stand out due to its truly excellent customer service, staffers should treat the rules more as flexible guidelines, to be followed as the situation demands. The customer is not always right — and neither is the rule book. The customer service representative’s goal should be to strike a balance that serves both the customer’s and company’s interests in the best way possible.

To a great extent, this can be achieved by empowering the staff at call centres, on planes and trains or in retail environments to use their common sense when handling questions and problems. Encouraging a good attitude toward problem solving is crucial, but so is a corporate culture that rewards initiative and does not discourage a creative approach.

One customer service mantra that I have always loved is, “First to know, first to handle.” In other words, when a problem arises, there is a fleeting opportunity to solve it on the spot.

Resolving problems this way has multiple benefits for both the customer and the company. For the customer, the advantages are obvious: the problem is solved, or at least alleviated. For the company, there is an obvious public-relations benefit: the customer is likely to tell other people how well the situation was handled. There are also significant cost benefits — for example, a reduction in the number of back-office customer-relations staffers required to handle a formerly lengthy back-and-forth process for resolving complaints.

At Virgin, a few senior managers and I host an annual Stars Dinner recognizing top performers — staff members who have been nominated by their peers — and celebrating their achievements. We look for the best examples of customer service, innovation, community service and environmental work. This sort of event demonstrates to employees that you care about them and that you notice and appreciate their hard work and initiative.

In the world of customer service, nice words from a supervisor are relatively easy to come by; the real proof is in positive feedback from customers. That’s when you know that the right kind of culture is taking hold.

I was particularly pleased by a note I received recently from Phil Williamson, a Virgin customer in Kenya, who wrote to me about

a trip to London he’d booked with his wife. Shortly before the trip, Phil’s wife was travelling for business and was able to meet Phil in London using

a plane ticket she’d received from a client. So they put her original ticket aside to use another time, but later, when they tried to book a new flight using that ticket, they found that it had expired because they hadn’t paid a change fee.

Hawa, a Virgin representative based in Kenya, explained the Williamsons’ situation to an accountant, who evidently told her that rules are rules, and that the airline would not make an exception in this case. In the end, Hawa appealed to another supervisor, the ticket was refunded and a new one was purchased.

“All’s well that ends well,” Phil told me. “But wouldn’t it have been so much better if the accountant had displayed a little more general business sense instead of sticking to his strict interpretation (of the rules)?”

Phil’s story demonstrates how close organizations come to losing customers every day, due to rigid adherence to rules. Keep in mind this classic stat: an unhappy customer will tell 10 people about a problem, while a satisfied customer will tell only four people about a good experience.

So, work on developing a corporate culture that — as I’ve said before — tries to “catch employees doing something right,” and rewards dedication and initiative. Looking after your staff is the best way to look after your customers and keep them coming back for more.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group.