Customer Service 301: Breaking the Rules and Moments of Truth

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
originally written for Specialty Food Magazine, July/August 2003

There are two specific areas where the one-customer-at-a-time approach can make a significant impact on organizational success. At Zingerman’s, we focus on both of them because either has the potential to take a customer experience from poor to great by simple, though often not intuitive, action by an owner, manager or associate.

Breaking the Rules

I recently attended a presentation by Ann Rhoades, executive vice president of people at the service-oriented and very successful Jet Blue airlines. Among the good ideas I took away was an outstanding interview question to use with job candidates: “Tell me about a time in a past job that you broke the rules for a customer.

An applicant must work through a bit of a paradox to be able to respond effectively. By conservative interviewing standards, they might be tempted to say that they have “never broken the rules. Certainly, many traditional candidates might think, “Who wants to hire someone who’s going to tell you up front that they don’t follow your company’s rules?

They’d be wrong. Ann Rhoades wants to hire those people and so do we. In fact, if an applicant were to tell me that she never broke the rules for a customer, I wouldn’t hire her. Because, at Zingerman’s, we want our staff to break the rules regularly in order to give better service to customers. We come right out with this rather unorthodox job expectation—I review it in the orientation class I teach for all new staff members. We also review it in all service training work. We want staff members to know up front. Although we expect them to adhere to our systems and policies almost all the time, we understand that there are exceptions to every rule.

Saturday Rule Breaking

What does this look like in practice? We have one customer who comes into the Deli every Saturday. He’s not the easiest guy to deal with. He has very good taste and high standards, and he’s very particular about what he wants—or doesn’t want—on any given day. Often, what he’s in the mood for is not on the menu. But instead of reading him the rules, we’ve adjusted the rules to fit his needs. Only a manager takes his order. A manager or a supervisor always prepares it. And, week after week, he’s delighted with his lunch.

New staff members will respond by saying, “Well, what’s the point? He’s just going to come back and ask us to break the rules again. I just look at them, smile, and say, “Exactly! You’re starting to get this service stuff down!

That’s not the answer they were looking for, but it’s the truth. As a result of this blatant rule-breaking, this customer has been coming in Saturday after Saturday for 15 years. And because he’s very vocal about his feelings, I know that he’s out in the community telling people why they too should spend their money with us to get exceptional food and great service.

When we handle this sort of rule-breaking well (and we never get it perfect), we avoid that horrific service scenario that everybody has suffered through somewhere as customers. The scene where you, the customer, want something that’s simple but which, unfortunately, doesn’t fit the “proper procedure. The employee on the other end of the line or behind the counter starts reciting the rules and telling you that there’s nothing he can do. Raises my blood pressure just thinking about it. (If you want a hilarious and food-related cinematic portrayal of this situation at its worst, rent the film “Five Easy Pieces and watch Jack Nicholson try to order a sandwich.)

This concept of breaking the rules is not an easy one to get across to new staff members. On second thought, it’s easy to communicate the concept. What’s hard is to get people to do it.

No matter how much each of us have that rebellious streak that makes us want to break rules now and again, we also have years of socialization and training in our families, our schools and our previous jobs that have told us that you don’t do that sort of thing. And as a result, it’s quite common to hear new, well-meaning staff members slip into starting to read a customer our policy rather than thinking things through and coming to a creative way to get the customer what they want.

Telling staff that it is okay to break the rules isn’t enough. We need to train them how to do it by using role playing and reviewing specific situations in which it might come up. At Zingerman’s, we reinforce the message as often as possible—in formal classes and in informal, on-shift conversation. We stress over and over again that no one has ever lost his or her job here for doing too much for a customer. But they could lose it for not doing enough. Over time, new arrivals usually “get it that we do mean it; and before long they’re creatively breaking the rules too.

Moments of Truth

The other place that this one-customer-at-a-time approach is so critical is in relation to Moments of Truth (from Jan Carlzon's book of the same name).

“Moment of Truth is the term that we use to describe those situations where there’s no overt customer complaint to be responded to, but where, for whatever reason, we’re in a make-it-or-break-it circumstance. It’s one of those spots where we’re about to lose a customer but, given the right set of perceptive eyes to spot the problem, some effective turnaround work can save the situation.

If handled well, that “save could make a customer for life out of someone who was half way—if not all the way—out the door. Moments of Truth are important for leaders to be aware of because the signals usually run below the surface and are often easily ignored by those who aren’t trained to look for them. Being as aware of these as I am, I will happily admit to having chased confused first-time customers into the street to get them to come back inside so we can serve them, or to emailing potential mail-order customers back and forth for weeks to find a way to get them to buy from us when at first it didn’t seem as if we had what they wanted. Others here do this even better than I do.

Is it worth the effort? Just look at the numbers. The average customer comes to see us at the Deli a couple of times a week; they spend, conservatively, $10 a visit. In a college town like Ann Arbor, where almost everyone is leaving for another city or school at some point, our average customer lives here for about five years. If they spend $20 a week during their tenure, then each individual will have bought about $5,000 at the Deli (not counting mail-order gift purchases, trips to the Bakehouse, catering, etc.) Is that sort of cash worth a couple of emails or a quick walk out the front door? I’d certainly say so.

Do a little more math on these Moments of Truth and the numbers are overwhelming. We have 50 partners and managers in our organization. If each of us saved/made a single customer this year through successfully identifying and acting on a Moment of Truth, that could mean a quarter of a million dollars in sales between now and 2008. Anyone interested?

Individuals Make the Difference

On the upside, this whole concept of remembering that great service is ultimately given one customer at a time—of being willing and able to break the rules when we need to give great service to a guest; of identifying and making Moments of Truth into positive outcomes—is inspiring because it demonstrates how much each of us as individuals can make a positive difference every day, for our customers and for the organization.

It’s also intimidating if you stop to think about it too long. Because opportunities missed are . . . opportunities missed . . . and much-needed sales and very real customers lost.

By staying vigilant about our service and teaching these concepts throughout the organization, we have the chance to contribute to significant future growth. If this resonates with you, then quickly, before you get caught up in the day’s distractions, go find a customer or pick up the phone. Do something special for that person. That’s what I’m going to do right now.