At some point in the past you made a choice to be an employee of the company you now work for. By accepting to work for a company, you implicitly take on everything that the company stands for. The success of that company is also your success. The failure of that company is also your failure. The policies of that company are now also your policies, because those policies are what are responsible for that success (or failure). You cannot take a piece of the success as your own (like a paycheck), without also taking on the policies as your own. If you don’t agree with a policy, you either need to accept it and move on, or get it changed, or you need to find a new employer. The one thing you cannot do is stand in front of a customer and claim that you don’t make the policies therefore you are not responsible for those policies – this stance is feeble and disingenuous and customers see right through it.

I have just returned from a particularly troubling interaction with a doctor and two nurses at a medical facility near my house. At this facility my family and I were subjected to a particular policy that was clearly implemented in the best tradition of cover-your-ass policy making [1]. This policy forced me to unnecessarily bring my two small children (ages 4 years and 11 months) into a medical facility full of sick people and other dangers and until I agreed to do so, the medical staff were withholding pain medication from my wife as ransom for my compliance to their policy. You see, the medical staff wanted to make sure my wife wasn’t going to drive home after receiving the medication. And apparently the only “iron-clad guaranteed” way that they can prove that this will be the case is if someone else shows up before the patient even gets the medication and sits dutifully twiddling their thumbs in the waiting room. My wife informed the nurses and doctor in question that I had both children with me and we did not want to bring them into the building unnecessarily, and that she had been dropped off and didn’t even have a car with her. But instead of moving forward with that explanation and allowing my wife (a grown adult) to take responsibility for her own actions, the medical staff instead decided to assume my wife was not only a liar but also someone who was incapable of making her own decisions and taking responsibility for her own actions.

As you can imagine I quickly requested to talk to the staff on duty as soon as I arrived and proceeded to explain to them that their policy basically told me that the medical facility would rather risk the medical health of my two children than risk my wife choosing not to take responsibility for her own actions and suing them later for driving into an electric pole on her way home hopped up on pain killers. I even used the term cover-your-ass policy making, which apparently one of the nurses decided was an unacceptable use of the word ass and decided to make an issue out of it. Seriously? What a colossal failure on her part. My use of the word ass was the least of her problems at that point in time, and the fact that she failed to comprehend that only further serves as evidence of the lack of customer service we received today. The doctor was also a customer service “super star” – at one point she turned her back and walked away, leaving the two nurses to deal with me (great way to lead from the front doc!) and when she did return she stood behind one of the nurses and stared at the floor. For someone who I assume attended college and has at least average if not above average intelligence, the simple art of customer service has escaped this doctor entirely.

Not one of the three staff members I spoke to in any way tried to proactively address the situation by writing my complaint down, or even verbally telling me that my complaint had been registered and would be raised at the next policy meeting (even if they had no intention of doing so) [2]. Nothing even close to that. Instead what I got was the standard two robotic responses from people in customer service positions these days – “not my fault” and “I’ll get my manager”. As I mentioned for the reasons above, it is absolutely your fault, and by not taking responsibility for it, you are only making the issue worse. I also don’t want to speak to your manager. Your manager works for the same company you do, therefore I assume they have taken on the policies of the company just as you have (or should have), so I shouldn’t expect to get a different answer from them. I also don’t want to speak to your manager because your manager did not make the decisions that immediately led to the situation I am registering a complaint about, you made the decision, therefore you are responsible.

Of course, the three medical staff I had the misfortune of dealing with are only half the problem, the other half of the problem of course is the employer. By legislating your employees to within an inch of their lives, you not only strip them of the right to apply common sense to situations and to take responsibility for their own actions, but you are often stripping your customers of the same rights. The three staff members in question are probably so weighed down by policies and procedures that they have given up any notion of applying creative thinking or just plain common sense in any situation for fear of being reprimanded (or worse). That of course doesn’t excuse them from taking ownership of those policies, but it does explain why they made no attempt to resolve the situation in any way and the best response to a complaint they can possibly hope to give is to take note of the complaint and pass it along to a higher power. Unfortunately the three staff members in question failed to even pay me that courtesy.

This is normally a technology focused space, so what’s the tech spin on this situation? Well, I do not know if there is a specific tech angle on this story, but this story applies to all businesses including tech companies. I have picked on the medical industry in this piece, but it could easily have been airline employees, cable company employees or employees of any number of high-tech related businesses. And don’t forget customer service is not only an external facing issue, it can also be an issue between teams or departments within your own company. If the marketing team is coming to the IT team with complaints about a project, how the IT team is set up to handle those complaints can radically change the face of the project for better or worse.

You are who you work for. If you don’t believe that, you are probably doing poorly at your job, either because you are miserable doing the work you are doing, or because you are being feeble and disingenuous when representing your employer.

Also, when writing policies for your employees to follow, it is important to decide what the purpose of the policy is (is it defensive, or empowering?) and what the side effects of the policy are (intentional or unintentional). But even before you write a policy, you need to decide if the policy is necessary in the first place. If you are spending the time up front to hire the right people, then you will need fewer policies, as common sense will cover many more situations. And with fewer policies in place, you empower your employees to make a wider range of decisions to solve problems not only for themselves, but also for your customers. If you don’t trust your employees to make the right decisions, you either hired the wrong people in the first place, or you haven’t spent the time to educate them about the culture of your company [3] and their responsibilities within it. Empower your employees, don’t handicap them – it’s better for them, it’s better for your customers and as a result it will be better for your business in the long run.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cover_your_ass
[2] http://www.customerservicemanager.com/dealing-with-customers-complaints.htm
[3] http://about.zappos.com/our-unique-culture/zappos-core-values