What to do when Customers Break Rules

What should your business do when customers break rules?

Some time ago, we stayed at one of our favorite places: the Ramada Hotel & Suites in Sioux Falls. Although the hotel’s indoor water park attracts most guests to the hotel, we enjoy the exceptional customer service. Scott, one of the front desk managers, always treats us like family, and Angela, one of the servers at Castaways Bar & Grill, consistently provides outstanding customer service. Indeed, we can’t imagine staying anywhere else when we visit Sioux Falls.

The peripheral of the water park is surrounded by the Castaways tiki bar, which features ample seating for guests, whether they are eating or drinking, celebrating birthdays, taking breaks from swimming, playing cards, or, like us, working on laptops. Numerous signs inform customers that, with the exception of birthday cakes and treats, outside food or beverages are not permitted in the tiki bar area. Guests who violate the rule are requested to consume the food or beverages in their hotel rooms.

That night, a family celebrating a birthday brought several Pizza Hut pizzas into the tiki bar area. When the server and manager requested the guests to take the pizzas into their hotel rooms, the customers explained that their hotel rooms weren’t ready, which created a dilemma for both the guests and Castaways.

So, what did the server and manager do? We’ll share that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about customer rules in general. Later, we’ll address what your business should consider when customers break rules.

We can all agree that businesses have the right — and the responsibility — to adopt rules by which customers need to abide. Even a customer service powerhouse like Disney establishes rules for its guests. In fact, as one former Disney employee shared with me, guest safety at Disney is paramount, which means that rules governing guest safety trump customer service. Accordingly, merely because a business institutes customer rules does not, in and of itself, make the business anti-customer service.

That being said, customer rules should nevertheless be reasonable, not arbitrary; that is, each customer rule should serve a legitimate purpose. In the case of Disney, its rule prohibiting guests from standing on moving rides protects guests from harm. In the case of Castaways, its rule prohibiting customers from bringing outside food or beverages into the tiki bar area protects the restaurant’s economic interests.

So, what did the server and manager do about the family who brought the Pizza Hut pizzas into the tiki bar area? Because the guests’ hotel rooms were not yet ready, the server and manager “bent” the rule and invited the family to finish their pizza in the tiki bar area.

And that was the right call. Some rules, particularly those that protect mere economic interests, can — and should — be “bent” for compelling reasons; other rules, such as those that protect customer safety, cannot. The fact that the customers’ hotel rooms were not ready constituted a compelling reason to bend the “no outside food or beverages” rule, which serves a mere economic purpose.

This week, consider how your business should respond when customers break rules. Thoughts to consider include the following.

  • First, does the rule serve a legitimate purpose? If not, consider abandoning the rule altogether.
  • Second, what general purpose does the rule serve? Safety? Regulatory? Economic? Exceptions can more likely be made for economic, as opposed to safety or regulatory, rules.
  • Third, under what conditions should your business allow customers to break a rule? Training your employees to recognize when exceptions to a particular rule should be granted, together with empowering your staff to grant those exceptions on their own, will streamline the customer experience and reduce the likelihood of unnecessary hassles when customers break rules.

Again, although customer rules are necessary, remember that exceptions are sometimes warranted, particularly when the rules promote mere economic purposes.


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