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Prioritize the Customer Experience Communicate your company standards clearly or your employees might make their own.

By Sydney Barrows

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In Akron, Ohio, there is a very famous frozen custard place; for years my friend Kurt and his wife have been going there and now they take their children, too. A fixture of the city, in the summertime the line is so long at the popular destination it runs around the block. And, as you might expect, it's staffed by teenagers.

On a recent visit to a newer outpost my friend ordered was a sundae with two different flavors of ice cream, something he had had ordered many times before.

"I can't do that, it would contaminate the second ice cream," says the kid behind the counter.

Sure that he must have misheard, he asks, "Could you please repeat that again?"

"The rule is that you can't put the same scoop in two different flavors, I can't give you two flavors."

Having gotten two-flavor cones and sundaes for years, my friend asks to see the manager. The young man, all of 20 years old, says "We can't give you two flavors; it would contaminate the ice cream, it's the rule."

After informing the manager that employees have "contaminated" ice cream for years on his behalf--as well as that of thousands of others--the manager remains firm. "It's the rule."

"You mean you would rather have us walk out this door right now--all four of us--rather than use two different scoops to make this sundae?" The manager wouldn't budge, "It's the rule." Incredulous and furious, Kurt told his daughters and his wife that they were leaving.

Not only did the store lose their business that day, they have lost that family's business forever. Don't forget about the negative word-of-mouth this whole fiasco generated.

Aside from the obvious fact that the manager has the IQ of a box of rocks, the company has an even bigger problem, and one that many other businesses do, too. In the absence of clear-cut directions, employees often will simply make up their own rules when they are unsure of how to handle something, or when it is in their personal best interest.

Imagine this scenario: a customer at this frozen custard became irate when handed a vanilla cone that had a little bit of strawberry on it. To avoid someone else going postal over a smidgen of a foreign flavor, the manager unilaterally decides that under no circumstances is a scooper to touch more than one flavor "in a row."

A temporary fix, sure, but how is the new rule going to be enforced as a practical matter? This new rule is not in the best interest of the customer, it's in place because the manager wants to avoid a possible future conflict. It's entirely possible the official company policy is to apologize profusely and give the customer another cone free of charge.

Has your company management made it abundantly clear--and repeatedly so--that customer service and satisfaction is paramount?

I'm willing to bet that nearly every one of you has a story similar to this. Let's hope there's no one that can tell a similar story about doing business with you!

Take a look at Nordstrom, a company with a customer service/satisfaction policy like no other. Nordstrom's executives make sure that every employee knows that they are expected to go above and beyond to accommodate a customer.

This policy isn't mentioned just once; managers remind the staff often, they circulate stories about employees who made heroic efforts to make a customer happy, they reward employees who have gone out of their way for a customer--and they do it publicly.

If you want to be known for providing an exceptional customer experience you must do the same thing. Start gathering stories of employees who have provided outstanding customer service and make sure your entire staff hears about them. Institute a monthly Customer Service Achievement Reward for your employees. Let them see how you handle unhappy customers, and give them authority to do the exact same thing.

In the absence of clear-cut rules employees will simply make up their own, and those policies may not be the way you would like to be represented. It is the business owner's responsibility to make sure employees understand how they wish things done, and to reinforce it on a regular basis.

Sydney Biddle Barrows is a New York based business consultant and recognized expert on the customer experience. You can find out more about her coaching programs, consulting practice and her newest book, Uncensored Sales Strategies, at http://www.sydneybarrows.com.

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