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Break These 5 Rules For Better Customer Service

Rules were meant to be broken, right?

Well, not if you're running a business. Your policies, whether they're part of a contract or end-user agreement, are there to protect you and your customers. Disregarding them could undermine your prices, your product â€" even your profits.

I deal with rules every day, and I can tell you that there's always a reason to look the other way and allow your customer to break a rule. Here are a few:

1. If you've done something wrong. When you have a little customer service problem, bending a rule and replacing a product that is out of warranty or giving a customers something extra â€" even when there's no reason for it â€" can be the right thing. Time and again, I've seen "rules are rules" managers refuse to budge, even when a little consideration could take them a long way, in terms of customer satisfaction.

2. If it costs you essentially nothing. Disregarding your policy is a victimless crime when it's more or less free. But it's difficult for many businesses to be objective enough to see it that way. They see hidden costs around every corner ("if I bend this rule, what kind of precedent does that set?"). But making a one-time exception and giving your customer another software download or a do-over on a spilled drink, can be a smart move.

3. When your customers are ready to leave. This is particularly true of your best customers. When they tell you they're done with you, it's time to tear up your contract and renegotiate on their terms. It's hard to spot this, even for the best managers. The natural instinct is to say, "Good riddance" when someone threatens to walk away from your business.

4. When your competitors are doing it. Unfortunately, if a rival is bending rules, you may need to as well. A good example is the hotel industry, which publishes rates and then offers generous discounts. Higher-end properties will insist on charging the regular prices, in the name of "rate integrity." Many of those same hotels were foreclosed on during the last recession.

5. If the rule is wrong. This one may be the most difficult of all to see. But when enough customers complain about of your policies, maybe it's time to consider changing it. As a first step to amending the policy, you might make an exception or two, to see how it affects your business. Are you losing money? Is it making your customers happy? If your profits aren't affected and customers are happy, you may want to make it permanent.

I might even argue that if enough customers are complaining, you should change a rule â€" even if it costs money in the short-term. Think of all the additional customers you'll attract without the silly rule in place?

That said, I understand â€" and so do your customers â€" that rules are necessary. But knowing when to bend them is, too.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, or email him directly.

Photo: JuditK/Flickr