Customer Service Training: Principles Trump Procedures
Adam Toporek Keynote Speaker of Customers That Stick®

Customer Service Training: Principles Trump Procedures


Last week, I went to a national “market” restaurant to grab a quick lunch. I do not go to this chain often but have been an infrequent customer since I discovered it back in 1993. So, I have a bit of a long term perspective on its business and its customer service.

In the past year or so, the chain has impressed me with their customer experience initiatives. Here are some of the initiatives “The Market” seems to have adopted.

  • Real plates and silverware have replaced paper and plastic.
  • Trash cans have been removed from the dining area; employees bus your plates at the end of the meal.
  • Employees make eye contact and welcome you when you walk through the door.
  • An employee walks your plates to your table for you after you checkout.

This last initiative is in some ways the most impressive — but it is also the one that inspired this post.

Customer Service Procedures Are Not Enough

As I was checking out with my food, a gentleman wearing a headset picked up my plate and asked me where I would like to sit. I was still early in my transaction with the cashier and told him not to worry about it.

He held onto the plate.

Upon opening my wallet, I noticed I had a few things to organize. There was a lull in the line behind me and the cashier was still processing my transaction, so I told the gentleman a second time that I could get the plate myself. He replied with, “I have it sir,” and then the cashier chimed in with “we take your plates to the table” — as if she was helping him win an argument.

At this point, I just smiled, left the wallet as it was, and walked with the gentleman to find a table. The exchange was a bit annoying, but I was not going to get upset with them for trying to do their jobs. They work on the front lines of fast casual — they undoubtedly deal with plenty of grief from customers every day.

That being said, both of them gave relatively poor service in attempting to follow The Market’s enhanced customer service procedures. It seems that they had neither been trained nor empowered to understand the principle of customer experience that underlies their new procedures.

Customer Service Training: Principles Over Procedures | Food Sign with SeagullsI think walking the plates to the table is a great touch, but on that day, I just wanted them to leave the plate on the counter and quit hovering over me.

Was it a big deal? No.

Did I consider it a “bad” experience? No.

But they negated the “WOW” they were trying to achieve by being robotic in execution. Procedure overrode principle, and the service suffered as a result.

Principle Comes From Culture First, Training Second

My experience with The Market that day started out rough before I even entered the building.

The parking lot was so full when I arrived at lunch that I almost turned around and went somewhere else. It’s a fairly isolated lot — if it’s full, the closest alternate parking spaces are a bit of a hike.

Of course, The Market cannot do much about the parking, except to make sure that its employees do not take up prime spaces. As I ate my meal, I noticed someone who was either the manager or the assistant manager run out to her car. She was parked close to the front, in what I would consider “customer spaces” if I managed that location.

Perhaps the “employee” spots were all taken when she arrived for her shift, but somehow I doubted it. The fact that she was walking from her car to the front of the building, in uniform, on shift, and typing on her phone in the middle of the lunch rush gave me an indication of her customer focus.

Is it possible that this manager executes the corporate procedures without a feeling for the big picture? Without understanding the why behind those procedures?

Why was her team so insistent on taking my plate? Why did the cashier so quickly get defensive and jump in to defend him?

My guess: Because when someone does not take a plate to a table the manager lets them know about it. Because that’s what they are supposed to do.

Like call centers that focus on average handle time without any care for customer satisfaction or experience ratings, organizations that focus on procedures in a vacuum lose sight of the very customer focus the procedures were designed to support.

Customer service procedures are important but understanding the principles underlying those procedures and giving staff the flexibility to know when to make exceptions is just as important.

In some industries, like fast casual, we cannot expect every person on the team to have highly developed service judgment. Yet, we can do our best to empower them and to make sure that the rule of pleasing the customer is the most important customer service rule of all.

About the Author Adam Toporek

By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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