I had a genuinely hilarious customer service interaction the other day. I had placed an order for my son’s school supplies online last year. When the almighty package arrived, the packing slip was emblazoned with a mighty pink sticker saying something along the lines of ‘Items marked with “OR” are unavailable and will be supplied at a later date’. I looked through their list and found the item, a $1 wooden ruler. Not a serious thing not to get… so ‘meh’.

We all had one of these things in high school. Many of us flipped it over, and scribbled on the back of it. Drew little pictures. Coloured in the numbers on the front. Retraced the brand and lines. Even sometimes drew love hearts with the initials of our affection that was forever-not-forever way back when. The good ol’ wooden ruler seems like the staple in our pencil cases we might have forgotten about, but could have never lived without.

Months passed, school started, my son needed the ruler to do his work, and the ruler was nowhere in sight. So I called “the company”…

A cheery ‘Sam’ answered the phone, and I gave her the order number I had pulled off their online portal, and then explained the situation. And then, she actually said it:

“Computer says no. Hmm, yeah my computer says you have the ruler. Sorry, but you will need to show me you didn’t get the ruler.”

I laughed. I actually asked her to repeat what she said, and she said it again, exactly right out of an episode of Little Britain. I sat here for a good 30 seconds with a massive grin on my face, thinking I had just walked into a comedy club. Computer says no!

I laughed again. I asked if she was serious, which I very quickly found out that she was.

I was told that I would need to find the mighty stickered packing slip and scan and send it to them, so that they could prove that their computer system was wrong. This was the only way that I would get the $1 ruler for my son which was already paid for and never received.

The interaction that followed was… terse.

You see, it’s not Sam’s fault. She is only doing what she has been told she is allowed to do. If we need to place blame – which is mightily unhelpful – it falls to the management that created and enforce the ridiculous policies in the first place.

Stepping back for a minute, we know these types of clashes occur all the time. Whenever a customer service representative comes up against a customer that wants a solution to a problem that the representative does not have the ability or authority to fix, terse exchanges occur. It leaves staff feeling even shittier hearing an earful over something they have no ability to control.

Therein lies the rub: why do these customer service representatives have no ability to service the customer? It’s because traditional management think that they need to control everything.

Stupid things like the control of profit and loss of every single item because money might be lost if things are handed out that can’t be accounted for. What managers often miss is the fact that more money will be lost if you don’t empower your staff to simply do these things.

The exchange on the phone lasted 15 minutes, and had me speaking to not only the initial representative, also her manager. At any hourly rate, the amount lost by trying to argue the point in wages defeats the amount lost by simply posting out a lost $1 wooden ruler.

In the end, I got the missing ruler. I also walked away from the call feeling terrible that I had to have such an awkward exchange simply because the computer said no.

If any lesson can be learned, it’s this; give your staff the authority to trust.

Empower them to make a decision that might traditionally cost a little bit of money – maybe even a lot. The customer experience on the other end of the phone will be something that money can’t buy, and create brand loyalty for your business. Your staff will feel great knowing they were able to help a customer, too. They might even stick around long enough to do it again and again.

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