Rules, Yes—but Use Compassion and Common Sense

I had an upsetting experience yesterday. Amid our current environment of chaos, confusion, and uncertainty, I find that people are generally behaving pretty well. I’ve noticed this at the grocery store, which I now visit only about once every ten days. Social distancing is in effect, with dots or X’s every six feet marking where customers should stand—and yet, there is still a great deal of humanity to be found. One shopper helps another reach something on a high shelf; a woman encourages the person behind her with fewer items to go ahead of her in the line; friendly clerks smile behind masks and plexiglass in spite of working long hours.

So what was the epic failure that was so upsetting? A clerk who stuck to the rules—and I mean stuck!

A shopper with 19 items inadvertently stepped into the “15 items or fewer” line. Upon discovering this, the clerk refused to ring up the last four items and told the customer she would have to put everything back in her cart and go to a different line. The woman apologized for her mistake and politely asked the clerk to make an exception (meanwhile, the lines were getting longer). He again flatly refused—rules, after all, are rules—and repeated that she could not be rung up in his lane and would have to move. No other solution was possible; he was entrenched in upholding the 15-item rule.

The woman burst into tears. The stone-faced clerk still wouldn’t budge. Finally, the frazzled customer turned to the lines of captive shoppers witnessing the scene and cried, “Does anyone think this is right?”

A solution suddenly appeared in the form of a fellow customer who took the four offending items, paid for them in her lane, and handed them back. The total? A whopping $4.32. The woman walked out crying, leaving the customers around her dumbfounded that the clerk couldn’t or wouldn’t find a reasonable solution. In fact, he seemed a bit grumpy that another customer had stepped in!

Now you may be thinking: “Rules are rules, and they are in place for the common good.” Well, yes, that’s true. But think about the purpose of the rule—in this case, customer convenience and speed. Did it make sense to upset a customer? To hold up the people in line behind her? To harm the reputation of the store, lose that customer for life, and generally anger everyone else within 30 feet of the woman? Of course not.

Would it have been a better decision to keep the line moving, thus letting people exit the store and speeding up the experience for the 20 people waiting outside to get in? Of course. Wouldn’t it also have been better for the clerk to say “I see, you made a simple mistake and I’ll ring you up—but in the future, please pay attention to the 15 item rule,” thereby meeting the underlying purpose of the rule? Yes, that would have been better.

When someone bursts into tears, empathy is certainly better than hidebound insistence on following an arbitrary rule meant to keep things speedy. That transaction took 14 minutes. The customer could have been happily out in seven, if a bit chagrined at her miscount. Now the store has lost at least two customers—I doubt she will be back, and I’m done. For good.

What’s the culture like in your organization? If customer-focused decision making on an issue this simple is absent like it was in this woman’s experience, then innovation, adaptation, creativity, and customer service are in real jeopardy. Don’t let this happen in your organization. Rules, yes—but use a little common sense and compassion, please. Especially during these trying times.

About the Author

Patricia Overland

Patricia Overland is a Coaching Solutions Partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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