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That’s Our Policy: Deregulating Customer Service | #ICMIchat Rundown (September 8, 2020)

Stack of large binders full of paper.

Rules are everywhere, and you can't escape them. Most of the time, they help things run smoothly and protect everyone's best interests, but sometimes they don't work out quite as they were intended. Businesses are full of rules, ranging from the conditions on promotional offers to limitations of warranties. Contact centers are often called to mediate between their company's interests and doing the right thing for customers.

Join us on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific to weigh in on the contact center industry's most pressing challenges. Check out next week's discussion and join the conversation on Twitter!

Contact centers also have plenty of rules of their own. Policies dictate what services are offered, how to deal with routine requests, and how customers may be compensated when things go wrong. This week's #ICMIchat explores how policies, guidelines, and standard operating procedures impact the customer experience. Our community shares examples of how rules can help and hinder the customer experience.

Guidelines vs. Policies

Managers may choose to steer how their business operates by different approaches. Policies tend to be rigid, dictating precisely how various situations must be handled. Guidelines act more like advice, offering a recommendation without limiting the possible outcomes. Policies, and standard operating procedures, relieve agents of decision-making responsibility. Conversely, guidelines rely on each individual's discretion to apply them in the way they are intended.

Guidelines train people to use their own judgement. Policies and SOP are more rigid and don't always allow Agents to solve the customer's problem.

The level of commitment. I tend to be of the mindset that nothing is black and white, everything is works in grey area. Rules in stone will always negatively impact someone due to their inability to flex to unique situations.

A policy and SOP seem to be written in stone, are unbreakable. Guideline is a suggestion. Each apply to different circumstances and rules and dollar amounts.

A policy is rigid, a guideline has wiggle room, and an SOP is the usual set of steps to handle a process. Policies are for legal req. and such. Guidelines provide flexibility. They are all good situationally. All policy and no guideline makes CX a dull place.

Policies For Good

Policies don't always have the best reputation, but they can serve an essential role in customer experience. Policies and standard procedures may help to ensure efficient and reliable service that is consistent every time the customer reaches out for help. They might represent best practices for handling known challenges or defects. When designed with the customer in mind, policies can help to enforce great customer experiences.

Policies ensure compliance with the law & regulations, but can also help establish general expectations & accountability, provide unity, consistency and a sense of direction. Use the word sparingly though. Think of ‘police’ —> Only use ‘policy’ for strict rules.

Consider policies to be checks and balances for CX. Help to implement the CX vision.

When executed well, they help set the right expectations both internally and externally. They serve as “training wheels” that guide employees how to react to a given situation (thru SOPs). They define the “as expected” in “works as expected”.

How They Go Wrong

Regulations are usually well-intended; their authors seek to protect the business and its customers. However, strict rules remove flexibility from the customer experience and might make it more difficult to react to unexpected situations. Customers have come to expect increased levels of personalization; they want to be treated as individuals. Providing standard, policy-driven solutions doesn't respect the uniqueness of their situation.

Policies hurt the customers most of the time because they are not designed with the customer in mind.

Suppose you purchase a garment, get it home, and notice it is damaged. You bought it that way. You try to return it (with the receipt and tags). But the store refuses the return because the item is damaged. That's definitely a policy problem.

Policies can get in the way of doing what's truly right in a given situation when employees know the rule, but not the intent behind it. As my former business partner would say, "When they know the lyrics, but don't know the melody."

It can limit your customer service team's ability to be flexible in options they can provide to an upset customer (an unintended consequence). Policies are a blanket to the average experience or issue, but unique situations do occur.

Rolling Out Rules

Policies and procedures are only effective when everyone is on the same page, and they can be an unwelcome surprise when customers don't expect them. The best way to avoid confrontation is to set customer expectations early in their journey; being clear up-front can reduce friction later on. Employees on the front-lines of customer service should also understand the reason behind their policies and procedures; customers will inevitably ask. A rational explanation goes a long way.

Clear & regular training. Not just the cookie cutter checkbox training that come out annually but actually talking about the ‘why’ & ‘what’ the impacts of said policies are to job performance & CX.

Policies should be woven into the fabric of FAQs, self-service, and employee training. But internally, the focus should be on understanding "why" we have the policy, how it can be bent when needed - not just the "rule-of-law."

In writing & in training sessions for agents, with examples of situations where the policies & expectations may be tested. In writing & a letter of representation to/with the customer/client outlining them, to set clear expectations of the customer/client.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

There's a story behind every policy, and a policy is often created for every unusual event. This often leads to bloated rulebooks that are difficult to remember. In the worst case, policies may conflict with one another. It's vital for leaders to periodically question whether historic policies still align with a business's risks, objectives, and customer service vision. Removing and consolidating rules leads to better understanding and execution.

Policies should make things easier - not more complicated - by taking the guesswork out of the equation. I advocate for ‘policy minimalism’: We should conduct frequent policy audits & eliminate roadblocks that are no longer required / don’t make sense anymore.

Heck yes! Policies that require the 10th level Roman numeral outline seem to be made to trick and trap both employees and customers. Simplicity is best - if it doesn't need to be said, allow good judgement to prevail, if an error is made - correct and move along.

Yes, policies are like trees. They need to be trimmed once in a while to ensure things don't get out of hand. Use #VOC , customer & Agent focus groups and/or annual policy reviews to ensure policies stay revelant.

Before You Know It

There are plenty of reasons that companies may wind up with more policies than they want. Internal bureaucracy and organizational silos don't help anything. While not every department is customer-facing, many play vital roles behind the scenes and may inadvertently create rules that directly impact customers. It's also worth noting that rules don't make good employees; they're no substitute for hiring right, training well, and developing a shared vision.

Who's running the organization? Compliance? Legal? Finance? What's the culture relative to customers? Have senior people spent time in sales, customer support, etc.? I think the answer to your question, many times, will be found somewhere in that pile.

Because that's the "easy thing" to do. I'd get a little aggressive and pointed for a minute... It comes down to cowardly leadership and a lack of investment in hiring, developing, and enabling people to do the right thing.

Industry has to be top reason followed by leadership that doesn’t truly understand what the org does in a daily basis.

Who Makes The Rules

Your regulatory landscape is often shaped by the industry in which you operate. Like healthcare and financial services, some businesses have a ton of rules to contend with from the very beginning. Although external forces may impose limits on how we operate, it's still crucial to be mindful of the restrictions we place on ourselves. Even how external regulations are interpreted can lead to different results depending on an organization's risk tolerance.

Regulation is usually reactionary, in response to something negative that happened. Policies can be proactive, and the best ones for customers usually are.

Regulation just stems from human instinct to keep everything moderated. It begins as discipline, and evolves to include reactions to circumstances around as well.

Some are due to industry regulations that are meant to safeguard custs. Some are due to internal depts trying to protect the org from loss. Still others come from trying to solve one-off cust issues with blanket decisions.

Making Better Policies

We often see poor policies in practice, yet feel powerless to make them better. It can be done! It starts by learning what you can about the policy and the logic behind it. Document and quantify the adverse impacts on customers, and begin building partnerships outside the contact center. Usually, the person who created a bad policy or strictly interpreted a rule didn't understand how it would be enacted in practice. By working collaboratively with teams who set the standards, we can often find common ground.

VoC is critical. Metrics showing real feedback and the direct impact of the policy on LTV or some measurement of loyalty.

Getting new rules depends on context--of the situation, of the organizational culture, of the team, of the business landscape, of the risk appetite... There are no cookie cutter approaches.

1. Have an understanding on the background for the rule existing in the first place. 2. Have evidence of a measurable negative impact on the business in terms that resonate w/ executives. (Churn, profits, etc.) 3. Come armed with a proposal to drive better outcomes.

Join us on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific to weigh in on the contact center industry's most pressing challenges. Check out next week's discussion and join the conversation on Twitter!