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How to Effectively Explain a Policy to a Customer

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Your customer should’ve read your company’s policy before purchasing your product. They kinda lied when they clicked the “I accept” box without reading a word of the fine print. Now they’re requesting a return, refund, or exception that your policy doesn’t allow. They’re sending you angry emails because the policy just got real for them, and they don’t like it.

Whether your customer should’ve read your policy but didn’t or tried to read your policy but couldn’t understand it, the outcome is the same. Explaining and enforcing the policy has become Customer Service’s duty. Customer Service didn’t create the policy, but when it comes to getting the customer to accept the policy, we find ourselves on the front line.

What Not to Do

These common approaches to explaining policies just don’t work:

Don’t “As per…” your customer.

Let’s say your customer emails you this: “What do you mean you don’t offer free return shipping?? The carry-on luggage I purchased from you is too small to hold my hiking boots and other gear. I’m not going to pay to ship it back to you. That’s on you!”

Don’t respond this way: “As per our return policy, customers must pay for return shipping.” Simply quoting the policy to a disgruntled customer won’t make them more “gruntled” or willing to comply. While you must enforce a published policy, customers don’t comply just because you cite the policy.

Don’t “We told you so…” your customer.

Let’s say you work in customer service for an international airline, and a customer has emailed you twice to request a refund for the $50 overweight bag fee they were charged when their checked suitcase weighed 14 pounds more than the limit.

Don’t write this: “We informed you of our baggage fee policy when you purchased your ticket.” Simply reminding the customer about a policy they didn’t read earlier won’t stop the flood of appeals.

Don’t ignore your customer’s feelings about the policy.

You work for a local bank, and your customer chats in to tell you how upset they are about not being allowed to use mobile deposit to deposit a money order. Your customer writes this: “I’m so frustrated! Why do you people make everything so difficult?? I have a perfectly legit money order issued by a national bank, but you won’t let me use mobile deposit to put it in my account. I need access to this money right now!”

Don’t ignore the customer’s feelings of frustration and urgency when you reply. If we’re ever going to have a chance at getting customers to comply with or understand policies they don’t like, we must address the feelings those policies raise. Ignoring the feelings never helps those feelings go away.

What to Do

Use the Paraphrase-Quote-Link approach.

If you just copy-paste your policy, terms and conditions, or other legal language into an email or chat, your customer probably won’t understand or accept it. Try this helpful, three-part approach instead:

  • Paraphrase the key point of the policy for the customer.
  • Quote a short, relevant passage of the policy.
  • Link to the full text of the policy online.

Here’s an example:

Customer Renata contacted ABC Airline to request they change the name on the ticket she booked for a flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. She is in the process of legally changing her name from a difficult-to-pronounce given name to an easy-to-pronounce chosen name. However, the legal paperwork confirming her new name is in process. She hasn’t officially and legally changed her old name to her new name yet.

Without legal documentation, the airline won’t change the name on Renata’s ticket. She has two options:

(1) Use the ticket which bears her given name

(2) Purchase a new ticket bearing her new name, cancel the other ticket, and be prepared to show ID on the day of travel that shows her new name.

ABC Airlines should use the paraphrase-quote-link approach to reply to Renata. Here’s a portion of their email to her. I’ve called out the sentences to show where they paraphrase the policy to make it easy to read, quote the policy to assert authority, and link to the policy, so she can read it in full.

“…[PARAPHRASE] We can change the name on your ticket to Los Angeles if you can provide legal documentation. [QUOTE] In fact, our policy states, ‘The passenger’s ticket must be in the passenger’s own legally documented name.” [LINK] You can review the full text of this policy in our Contract of Carriage, Section 4a.”

Emphasize positive alternatives, even if the policy prevents the customer from getting exactly what they want.

Customers often view policies as the official language that explains why you won’t help them. Of course, that’s not entirely fair to your company, but it is the way many customers feel. To combat this perspective, remind customers how to get something close to what they want.

Here are a few examples of emphasizing a positive alternative:

  • “While we cannot accept a money order for mobile deposit, we can accept this deposit at any of our 17 branches. Did you know that 12 of these branches have extended hours? They’re open from 7 am to 7 pm.”
  • “While we don’t pay for return shipping, we can provide you with a shipping label you can print at home. We’ll deduct the $7.95 shipping fee from the credit we issue you for the returned carry-on luggage.”
  • “While we can’t refund your $100 event cancellation fee, we do allow you to apply that amount to any future event space bookings you make with us.”

Acknowledge or empathize with the customer’s feelings.

It can be difficult, risky, or just plain insincere to empathize with a customer’s angry words about your company’s policy. After all, you’re not going to write, “Yes, I can certainly see why you consider our ‘no refunds on digital downloads’ policy outrageous.”

But as all customer service professionals know, you can’t access your customer’s logical side without helping to calm their emotional side. Even when the customer is pushing back angrily against a condition they accepted during the purchase process, you should dig down into your empathy supply and demonstrate understanding. You’ll have to do this carefully, however, or you will risk undermining the policy.

Here are a few examples of safe ways to empathize with the customer’s feelings:

  • “I understand how eager you were to host the in-person conference in our event space, so I hope you’ll be able to apply the cancellation fee for this month’s event to a future event this spring or summer.”
  • “You mentioned that you’ll be using these money order funds for the down payment on a new condo, and I do understand how hectic the home-buying process can be.”
  • “I’m so sorry you found the wording of this policy confusing. I’ll pass your feedback on to our Legal Team, for review. If you have questions in the future, please use Click to Chat to reach us Monday through Friday from 8 am to 6 pm Central. We’re glad to clarify any aspects of the policy.”

Speak up.

It’s not the Customer Service team’s fault when customers don’t understand, like, or want to follow company policy. In most organizations, the Legal team wrote or approved the policy, the Customer Experience team designed how customers would be exposed to the policy during their journey, and the Web team created the “Click to Accept” language and buttons. Like so many other issues with products or processes, the Customer Service team must handle the problems caused by a policy that’s written in legal language customers can’t understand or one that’s punitive or uncommon.

If you work in Customer Service and you know your company’s policies or terms and conditions are causing a flood of phone calls, emails, and chats, speak up. Here are some actions to take:

  • Document the number of contacts you receive about these policies.
  • Prove to the Legal team that it’s possible to write legally binding content in plain language, so customers understand what they’re accepting when they click a box.
  • Show them LinkedIn’s User Agreement, which provides short single-sentence summaries of each section.

You wouldn’t stand by if customers were telling you your product is broken, your website is glitchy, or they can’t understand your documentation. If customers can’t understand, find, or follow your policies, be their advocate and cause change.