When Should a Business Break Its Own Rules?

Exceptional customer service sometimes means making exceptions. Just ask Ana Leiderman, an American who lives in Colombia.

Last year, Leiderman opened an account with Capital One, which is one of the few banks that doesn't charge exorbitant foreign-exchange fees. She needed a second debit card for the account. But Capital One has a policy against issuing two cards for the same account.

Repeated attempts to find a way around the problem, including opening a money market account and begging the bank to make an exception, were met with the same canned reply.

Dear Valued Direct Banking Customer,

Thank you for your message. Unfortunately, we are unable to process your request to receive a 2nd Debit card.

You are allowed 1Debit card per account per owner. Regretfully, you can only have 1 checking account however you are more than welcome to open another account.

We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused.

Of course, Capital One can "process" her request for a second debit card. It just won't.

That begs the question: When should a business waive its own rules?

A few days ago, I looked at some of the instances in which a company might throw out the rulebook.

I also conducted a survey on the subject last year, specifically asking if airlines should bend their rules during a weather event. It found that a solid majority of customers (69 percent) feel making an exception to the rules is warranted. The sentiments are the same across other industries as well. Customers want businesses to be flexible.

Figuring out when to bend the rules is a little more difficult, as a business. Here are a few considerations:

How much does it cost? If making a policy exception would cost the business a lot of money in lost profits, then it must be carefully weighted against the benefits of making the consumer happy.

Would it set a precedent? If making a "one-time exception" to a policy would make the rounds on the Internet, would everyone start to ask for it? This concern often surpasses the lost-revenue issue.

Will it build loyalty? Would bending a rule result in more loyalty from the customer? Or would the customer, emboldened by a company's acceptance, only ask for more favors? The conventional wisdom is that if you want to build loyalty, you should have a loyalty program. But that isn't the only way.

Does it make you lose face? If a business has an earned reputation for uniformly and evenly enforcing its rules, would a one-time exception make it lose face to such a point that it loses credibility with customers? (Representatives often say, "It wouldn't be fair to our other customers" when what they really mean is, "It would make us look bad.")

For Capital One, no alarm bells go off when this case is run through this decision matrix. The cost is negligible, doesn't really set a precedent, it builds loyalty and actually makes the company look good.

So I contacted the bank on Leiderman's behalf. A representative phoned her a few days later.

"They offered to make an exception and give me a second ATM card on my existing account," she says. "They were also nice enough to overnight this card to my US address."

That's exceptional service.

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