Customer Service: Throw OUT the Word “Rules” – from Shep Hyken

Shep-HykenNational Customer Service Week is just around the corner (the first full week of October). As we get close to the week where we emphasize how much we appreciate our customers, as well as the employees who provide our customers an amazing experience, this article might be worth sharing with your fellow employees.

Even while on vacation with my family, I can’t help but take note of the customer service – or lack thereof. One resort employee denied a simple request using one of my least favorite phrases:

I’m sorry, it’s our rule.

Six of us had gathered for an early morning breakfast and wanted to sit together on the patio, where all of the tables were set up for four people. The previous evening, while we were dining in the restaurant, the employees had happily pushed two tables together to accommodate our group, but apparently, the “rules” were different for the patio. Even though there were plenty of open tables, when I asked the hostess if we could move the tables, her answer was, “No, I’m sorry, we aren’t allowed to do that.”

“Why not? I asked.

She seemed to be embarrassed as she put her head down and said, “I’m sorry, it’s our rule.”

Though I was not happy to hear her say that phrase, I politely asked her if she would speak to the manager and ask if they could make an exception for us. She went inside and when she returned a few minutes later she said, “The manager said we can make an exception for you.”

We returned for breakfast the next day and again asked if we could push two tables together. She didn’t say no, but told us she would be right back and went inside. When she returned she said, “The manager said it would be OK.”

Can you see the obvious customer service lessons in these interactions?

  • First, rules should be made to take care of customers, not simply for the convenience of the business. Especially something as simple as pushing two tables together.
  • Second, employees should be empowered to make basic decisions without seeking a manager’s approval.
  • Third, once the manager’s approval was given, the employee shouldn’t have had to ask for permission again the next day.

When it comes to customer service, I say we should throw out the word “rules.” And while we’re at it, toss “policy” in there too. I’m OK with guidelines. But the important part, no matter what you call it, is that they are designed to serve the customer. And employees should understand the spirit of the meaning behind them.

So, teach your employees the guidelines, and the intent behind them, then empower the employees to make decisions to support the customer. They shouldn’t have to ask permission to do something that seems like common sense. And once they have been given permission, they shouldn’t have to ask a second time.

Shep Hyken is a customer experience expert and the Chief Amazement Officer of Shepard Presentations. He is a New York Times bestselling author and has been inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in the speaking profession. Shep works with companies and organizations who want to build loyal relationships with their customers and employees. For more articles on customer service and business go to

The ICSA launched National Customer Service Week in 1984.  For this year’s theme, a Celebration Planning Guide, and a place to post your Service Stars, visit the Official National Customer Service Week website!


  1. Totally agree Shep! There are times that businesses make rules that tie the hands of their customer service personnel. Every one of those “rules” should be evaluated from the customers perspective, then the companies perspective….and then from the customers perspective AGAIN!

  2. It is amazing how “rules/policies” are put in place that companies think they are doing “good”, but in reality it hinders the ability to serve the customer. Customer Service is a journey not a destination and we need to continue to ask why is the rule/policy in place. Is the rule/policy implemented in the best interest of the customer? If the answer is no, advocate for change. Everyone is a change agent!!!

    • The best customer-focused companies recognize that rules are just guidelines. And these guidelines should constantly be tweaked. One idea is to share an example of a recent customer interaction that didn’t go so well and ask different groups how they would have handled it. You may come up with some new guidelines that make the customer experience even better.

  3. Very timely article. Employees want to do the right thing and intuitively know what’s best during a given interaction, however, they are often driven from a compliance perspective to follow an outdated rule or policy. Involving employees in the process by seeking their feedback in policy creation or “rules” tweaking can often improve the customer experience.

    • That word “compliance” is a tough one. Sometimes it’s legal and there is nothing we can do, but to diplomatically and sometimes delicately explain the reason to the customer. However compliance to company imposed rules is different. Employees should be trained on what they can do when approached with a problem and then be empowered to follow through. And, though debriefing with managers and others on the team, perhaps new standards and guidelines can be created that further improve the customer experience.

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