Recently I had to visit the local pet shop to pick up a few things. I arrived at about 8.50am and the sign on the door said the business opened at 9am. Being impatient, I looked longingly through the window, with my sad puppy eyes, to see if anyone was inside who could possibly open the door a little early.
Inside there were five staff standing around the counter, shooting the breeze and looking at their watches and me in a very strange kind of Mexican stand off way. No matter how sad and pathetic I looked, they were not going to let me in.
At exactly 9am, one of the team walked over and opened the door. On the way in I asked the young man why didn't they just open up a bit earlier seeing that I was waiting and they were clearly ready to open? His response was 'our policy is that we don't open the store before 9am'.
"Sorry, that is our policy" - a phrase we've all heard before, normally followed by a sense of frustration, anger and rage.
Policies are great. They spell out the rules and regulations that add order to our lives and our businesses. Policies take out the grey areas that require us to think. Sometimes though, we need to look beyond a policy and use some good old fashioned common sense.
The problem with policies is that they can make us lazy. We can hide behind a policy, simply because that's out policy. Our staff can hide behind policies as well. As soon as we are told that something is a policy, it seems that no further justification is needed and in fact, all conversation and negotiation is abandoned. After all, it is a policy.
We live in a time when customers are craving connection and engagement and in my opinion, a lot of policies destroy any chance of either connection or engagement. Instead they put up barriers, they make the customer feel like a second rate citizen and in some instances a criminal.
Policies are normally written for the minority. Shoplifters represent a very small sector of the community, but they determine how many clothes we can take into a change booth and the fact that we get filmed all day long in shops.
Here are some of my ideas regarding making any business less policy rigid and more customer and staff friendly:
1. By all means have policies in place, but be clear about what the exceptions to the policy are.
2. Encourage your staff to know the policies, but praise them for knowing when to ignore them.
3. Do a review of all of your businesses policies and see which ones are no longer relevant (and do this exercise regularly).
4. Use some imagination when you write your policies. Make the wording clear but have a little fun with it.
5. Incorporate some positive policies. For example, 'our policy is to make sure your stay at our hotel exceeds your expectations. So please tell us if there are any areas that you think we need to lift our game.
6. Explain the reasoning behind a policy. I saw a sign in a shop in Thailand recently that read 'ninety nine percent of our customers are absolutely wonderful. One percent steal things from us. Unfortunately we can't afford to have things stolen so we have to check every bag that leaves the shop. To our honest customers we are very sorry for any inconvenience. To the thieves, shame on you'.
7. When it comes to staff behavior and expectations, get them to write up their own policies. Of course this can be a bit of fun, but helping your staff to understand what is acceptable and what is not helps to clarify why a policy is needed.
8. For the big issues, policies need to be black and white. For example don't drive the forklift drunk. But some topics are not as black and white and they need some discussion and probably some debate. This is very relevant for topics like internet usage at work. The point here is to be a little flexible.
9. Don't let bad policies be an excuse for bad systems. If there is an element of your business that needs to be stream lined or run a little better, don't use a policy as a Band-Aid. Fix the underlying problem.
10. When you are out and about, spending your hard earned money and you hear those four dreaded words, 'that is our policy', stop and think about how these words make you feel. Then think about how your customers feel when you use the same four words on them.
Policies definitely serve a purpose, but don't let your business be ruled by them. Success in the modern business world is about connection and engagement and we need to do whatever we can to make both of these interactions positive and enjoyable. Whilst I am certainly not saying that we should stop using policies, I am saying to use them wisely.