Stand and Deliver (Or the importance of knowing when to stand in front of the rules)


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Shortly after moving to a new house, I spent a traditional middle-aged Sunday wandering around furniture shops. I bought an amazing new chair, but only after a lesson that good customer experience relies on people standing in front of the strict processes handed down from head office.

We’d had our eye on this chair for a while, so headed to the shop to enact the obligatory sit-on-it-for-15-minutes-to-make-sure-it-was exactly-the-right-level-of-comfort test. When we got to the shop, there were big signs everywhere promoting their ‘Display Furniture Sale’, and even better, the chair we wanted was half price.

Comfort test done, I went to pay for the chair before someone else could snatch it from our grasp. That’s where the problems started:

‘I’m sorry, sir, because it’s ex-display, we can’t deliver it. You have to take it home – today.’

Not ideal. Particularly because we have quite a small car, quite a tall toddler and quite of lot of junk that seems to have gathered in the backseat without us noticing.

Suddenly our dream of a perfectly comfy half-price chair to sit on for the next 20 years was in danger of slipping through our fingers but we presumed there must be a way to do this, the company must be used to this situation.

Instead of an easy answer, what followed was a bizarre back-and forth with the team to work out whether it would be possible for me to actually give them my money for a product they wanted to sell:

‘Can I take the chair out to the car [parked in their car park, right outside the store] to see if it will fit?’ ‘No. You have to buy it first.’
‘If I buy the chair, take it outside and it doesn’t fit, can I bring it back in and get a refund?’
‘No, no refunds on ex-display furniture.’
‘If I buy the chair, take it outside and it doesn’t fit, can I bring it back in until I’m able to collect it during the week?’
‘No, you have to take it today.’

By this point, I was living in one of those puzzles that feature a fox, a chicken and a bag of grain. There seemed like there might be a way to make his happen, but they really didn’t want me to buy this chair. (Unlike my son, who was refusing to move from the chair and yelling, ‘This is our chair, you can’t have it!’ to any other prospective purchasers who even so much as looked at it in an admiring way.)

I decided to take the risk and buy it, confident that with some careful chair leg removal, and abandoning my family in the store, I could get the chair in the car, get it home and return triumphant an hour later. So I handed over my card, paid for it and hoped I was right.

‘Could someone help me carry it to the car, please? ‘
‘Yes! Of course we can, but only as far as the door.’

So the helpful (young, muscly) assistant carried the chair to the front of the store with me, then put it down and watched as my wife and I struggled to take it the extra three metres from the door to the car, open the boot and balance it there to remove the legs – all while trying to stop our toddler running out in front of the other vehicles that were finding parking spaces.

For any large organization to be successful, it needs to have processes and policies in place to ensure a consistent delivery of what it offers. But rules can’t possibly account for every scenario that might occur, with journey maps often built around an aggregated experience, not accounting for the myriad of moments that need reacting to every day. This leads to customers being frustrated and colleagues being embarrassed, knowing what the simple solution is but having to give that apologetic ‘I would if I could’ response. The best organizations understand this, providing guidelines but giving their people the freedom to use their initiative and common sense to do what’s right in the moment, for that customer.

This is an excerpt from The Human Experience: How to make life better for your customers and create a more successful organization by John Sills (Bloomsbury Business, £20), published with permission from the author.

John Sills
25 years ago, John started his career on a market stall in Essex, and since then has worked in and with companies around the world to make things better for customers. He’s been in front-line teams delivering the experience, innovation teams designing the propositions, and global HQ teams creating the strategy. His first book, The Human Experience, was published by Bloomsbury in 2023.


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