I was watching the movie “The Terminal” this weekend – the 2004 film starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones about a man forced into a state of limbo in a US airport terminal. His home country was embroiled in a civil war and, due to this turn of events, the US did not recognize his citizenship. He couldn’t get in and he couldn’t go back. Ever the industrious fellow, “Viktor” settles in and tries to make the best of the situation, much to the chagrin of “Frank”, the airport security manager. Frank finally loses it and all but assaults Viktor – in front of upper management. What follows is an interesting exchange between Frank and his boss:

Boss: “It doesn’t look good, Frank”

Frank: “I was just following the rules.”

Boss: “Sometimes you just have to ignore the rules and concentrate on the people.”

Concentrate on the people” – what a concept. How often have you wished that a customer service clerk would just take the initiative and do the sensible thing – even if it meant ignoring the rule?

I saw this situation in action at a community festival the other day. The organizers had, wisely, stationed volunteer crowd control officers at the front gates of the event. This served a dual purpose – ensuring that the visitors paid the token entrance fee and, more importantly, avoiding a mush of people trying to enter and exit at the same time.

The entire exercise worked well for the better part of the day. About half an hour before the event ended, the crowds had dwindled to a few handfuls of people. Most of these good folks were laden with purchases of Christmas crafts, cake walk wins and flea market finds. Since the fair was almost over and there wasn’t a latecomer for miles around, a sensible person would have seen the wisdom of letting everyone leave through the wide entrance. What did the faithful gate-keepers do? They forced everyone to turn around, packages and all, and shuffle through the narrow exit passageway, lugging their stuff and cursing the inconvenience.

What, exactly, was the point?

The point is – there was no point.

Somebody along the way had said: “These are the Rules!!”  The obedient sentinels carried on and created a stressful situation for many people who had dropped a significant amount of money at a charity event.

In the service industry, Knowledge is Power. It’s not enough to read the handbook and know the policies and procedures; you need to understand the reasons and purpose behind them. You need to be ready for the potential challenge they might pose to your customers. Readiness is also Power.

Armed with the background information to “the rules”, you’ll come to understand “the bigger picture”.

This is key to developing confidence in decision making. In this case, the bigger picture was that the rule was needed for crowd control during the busiest period. Without knowing the purpose of the rule the staffers weren’t ready when the situation proved the policy moot. Their actions ended up being counter-productive to good customer service.

You have to care enough about your own quality of service and understand that it’s a reflection of you first and then your company. You might consider a particular rule ridiculous and feel insecure about how to face customers when trying to enforce it. Take time to learn the reasons for its existence. If it’s still “dumb” in terms of quality of service, and you now know its purpose, it puts you in a position to work on a solution. Using knowledge and readiness to meets the customers’ needs to initiate improvements for your company is powerful stuff on a resumé.

Two rules you want to follow every time: Know Your Stuff & Be Ready.