No company, big or small, can survive without some rules in place. Rules and regulations not only instruct employees on how the company works, but also how they should act. These black and white guidelines are instituted to solve problems that have come up previously or to establish some form of order for future situations. My experience has shown me that black and white rules don't always work in a world of gray.

While parameters are essential to creating success, leaders need to stress the importance of your company's principles. These are what enables your employees to make customers feel valued. Alternatively, by blindly sticking to a set of rigid rules, you risk alienating your employees who become uncomfortable that they cannot satisfy customer requests and special situations.

How Technicalities Cause Trouble

I recently encountered this "stick to the rules" problem when I experienced a problem with my car. My radiator overheated and I had it towed to the dealership. It turns out that the year, make, and model of my vehicle had been recalled for this issue. I brought this to the attention of the mechanic by showing him a print out of the recall, hoping that the dealership would cover parts and labor costs. Instead, Sam, the employee slapped the notice on the counter and, with a bright red pen, circled the word "some."

Sam said "some of these cars have been recalled for this issue. Your vehicle's VIN number was not on the list," he said while already walking away from the desk.

"Even though my vehicle has the same problem as those that have been recalled? Clearly missing my VIN number was an oversight by the manufacturer," I said.

Sam shrugged and said, "I agree, it looks like an oversight. But, regardless, your VIN wasn't included. I can't cover something that won't be backed by corporate." Then he said it -- "It's just the rules."

Of course, Sam had some room for improvement regarding how he speaks with customers. It is very clear to me that the true problem here is that he been told to quote policy by his superiors, perhaps many times, and so he feels he is just following orders. It puts Sam in a confrontational role, and it certainly affected my view of the dealership. Did the manager or owner of this outfit know about this problem, and if they did, do they care? The fact that Sam did not feel comfortable raising this issue to his superiors keeps them in the dark. Clearly, I will never buy another car from these guys.

Customers Crave Companies That Care

From a leadership perspective, the consequence of overly-rigid systems is that they often place well-intentioned employees in a no-win situation with customers. If the manager knew about this, and found a way to make this work, I would have stayed loyal to that brand. And in the extremely competitive automotive marketplace, loyalty is key for growth. Clearly, the leaders of this company allowed little freedom or leeway for their employees to do their job outside the confines of their allotted rules. 

As a leader, you should always stress the importance of following your company's principles. Employees should demonstrate a conscious effort to maintain the rules whenever possible, but not at the cost of the bigger picture. In my example, if the same employee made a conscious effort to help me, the customer, I would have felt appreciated and respected the outcome, even if it did not work out. 

Setting Your Employees Free

Obviously, all industries experience these issues, and therefore this creates opportunities to earn your customers' loyalty at each transaction and encounter. As a leader, try to think about and define what are the defining principles for your business.  Talk it over with your leadership team to make sure you are all in agreement. Then look at all the rules you have and see how they line up with your principles. If they don't conform, get rid of them, or at least change them so they are aligned. This is a big job, but it is important.

Similarly, you and your team should determine some boundaries, or limits that provide employees with some latitude so they can make decisions on their own, on the spot.  You should also define what types of situations require escalation, so that if the employee wants to help but does not feel empowered, he has access to assistance.

Breaking The Status Quo

Rule breakers are not bad, particularly when there are too many rules and most importantly, they are trying to do the right thing for the customer. Take a fresh-eyes approach to how your business operates and really focus on defining the appropriate principles. Make sure your leadership team fully conveys this new approach to all employees and monitors the results carefully. You will see a significant improvement in customer engagement, employee satisfaction and better results.