The good deviants: breaking the rules for great customer experience

J. N. Halm

The customer was visibly angry. He had waited for hours, or so he said. His takeaway order, which had taken forever to process, had finally arrived but had been botched. From his vituperations, it was clear that he was a regular customer. Some of the waiters tried calming him down but it was not working. He especially felt cheated because he had to pay before the food was prepared.

He was almost walking out when one of the workers, a supervisor of sorts, came from an inner room to talk to him. One of the first things this lady did was to take the aggrieved customer to a corner table. She could then be seen talking calmly to the customer. She handled the situation so tactfully that within a few minutes, the customer had calmed down.

Thankfully, by the time she was done talking to the customer, the right order had been prepared for the customer. She personally when to the back of the eatery and brought out the food herself. Then after she had handed the man his food, she added a gift. It was a small-sized pizza. She told the customer, “That’s on the house—for the inconvenience we caused you.” With a sweet smile, she waved the now-satisfied customer out of the restaurant.

This wonderful lady had saved the day for her employers. However, it was after the customer had left the premises that the real scale of what she had done came to light. One of her colleagues walked up to her and from the verbal exchanges that ensued, it became apparent that the giving of the gift of pizza was something that the lady should not have done.

Like many other eateries, there was a strict “No Free Food” policy. The lady had saved the day. She had retained an obviously very good customer but, in the process, had broken a rule.  She had gone against company policy to give a customer a great experience. She was a deviant but was of the good kind.

Her actions will most likely result in that customer continuing to be a good customer who will return for more purchases in the future. We all know that repeat business, especially from good customers, is a dream of every business.  In other words, this lady deserved a pat on the back for what she did. But would that not be endorsing lawlessness?

Obviously, this lady is not the first, and definitely not going to be the last, customer-handling professional to pull off a stunt like that. In almost every organisation, there are going to be those times when aggrieved customers would need to be compensated in one form or another. Some of these compensations might be off the books.

A driver’s mate or bus conductor can use his discretion to say that a particular passenger can be allowed to pay only half the fare or even ride the entire journey for free—to appease the passenger for something that might have happened during the trip. A customer-handling professional working in a bank or any financial services provider can give a particular customer a waiver on some fees as a form of compensation.

Sometimes, a customer -facing professional has to do something, at the spur of the moment, to rescue a situation. How is a business supposed to handle customer-facing employees who do that? Even if the end result is a satisfied customer, should a business encourage its staff to occasionally break the rules to satisfy customers?

The first thing to remember is that these instances of positive but deviant behaviours are not the norm. They are the exceptions to the rule. If the amazing lady in the opening vignette were to be giving free pizza to every single aggrieved customer, that eatery will be out of business sooner rather than later. Therefore, deviant behaviour cannot be allowed to become the way of doing things in the organisation. If Management realises that a lot more deviant behaviour is occurring, it should send a signal that there is something wrong with the policies of the organisation. In that case, something must be done about those particular rules that employees keep breaking.

It is also important to recognise that the positive but deviant behaviour is done out of the employee’s free will. No one forces the employee to break the rule. He or she will do so volitionally and deliberately, knowing full well that what is being done is against laid-down rules, policies and procedures. This is because many of the stories of excellent customer experience arose from employees using their own volition.

Another important thing about the kind of deviant behaviour we are talking about is that the deviant behaviour must not benefit the customer-facing employee. If the employee benefits in any way from his or her actions, then the issues of conflict of interest arise. If the waitress from the earlier story got a piece of the pizza from the aggrieved customer, that would have been a big problem.

The employee’s actions must solely be for the benefit of the customer. The end result of the employee’s deviant behaviour must be a very satisfied customer. The employee will also receive some satisfaction. However, the employee’s satisfaction will be more intrinsic and will come from seeing the customer satisfied.

Professor Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison from New York University published a study in the February 2006 edition of the Journal of Management.  In that study, titled “Doing the Job Well: An Investigation of Pro-Social Rule Breaking”, Prof. Morrison found three primary types of deviant behaviour or “pro-social rule breaking”, as she calls it. These three categories of deviant behaviours are:

  • rule breaking to perform one’s responsibilities more efficiently,
  • rule breaking to help a subordinate or colleague, and
  • rule breaking to provide good customer service

In the same study, Prof. Morrison also stated that there were three factors that contributed to pro-social rule breaking. These factors are as follows:

  • The level of autonomy employees have on the job

When employees have been empowered and have been entrusted with enough responsibility, they are more likely to engage in deviant behaviours.

  • The behaviour of co-workers

It is a known fact that the culture within an organisation has a very powerful effect on the actions and inactions of those within the organisation. When an employee sees a colleague deviate from the norm to serve a customer, the likelihood increases that the employee might do same.

  • The propensity of the employee to take risks.
  • Deviant behaviour can be very risky. If it backfires, an employee could easily lose his or her job. Therefore, the tendency to break the rules will be dependent on the propensity of the employee to take risks.

It has been found that employees are also more likely to be deviant when they believe the policies of their organisation are unfair to customers. When an employee stays at the front line for some time, interacting with and getting to know customers, it becomes easier for the one to start empathising with customers. As the one sees the customer’s pain, it is only a matter of time before the one begins to feel the customer’s pain. Therefore, it becomes natural for such an empathetic employee to go against a rule to try and satisfy that customer.

Another research piece published in November 2020 edition of Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services that sought to study the dynamics of this kind of deviant behaviour of front-line employees made some interesting assertions. In this study, the deviant behaviour was referred to as “customer-oriented constructive deviance” and was defined as “voluntary behaviours that violate formal organisational rules to provide better customer service.

The study was titled “The Consequences of Customer-Oriented Constructive Deviance in Luxury Hotel Restaurants.” According to the study, when employees go out of their way to go against company policies and rules to serve customers, it tended to increase the loyalty of said customers.

Fact is, employees would generally not like breaking rules, in whatever shape or form. The average customer-handling professional does not look forward to breaking rules. Therefore, if a situation “forces” them to break the rules of the employer, the aftermath is not always pleasant for the employee. This is something that business leaders must consider when faced with deviant behaviour from employees. Cracking the whip on such an employer might not always be the best approach.

In an era of intense competition and increasingly more knowledgeable customers, every little advantage counts. From the discussions so far, it is clear that constructive deviant behaviour can endear a customer to a brand, which can be very advantageous for the organisation. However, it is important to realise that rules exist for a reason.

Rules serve a very important purpose in spite of what some say, tongue-in-cheekily, that rules are meant to be broken.  Rules protect, first the organisation and then those within the organisation. But as has become evident, there are times when breaking rules can lead to good. It is therefore in the interest of each organisation to make room for such behaviours.

The natural reaction of business leadership to punish any form of rule breaking is something that must be reconsidered. If all rule breaking is met with the harshest of punishments, then employees with the best of intentions will even stay away from doing what they know will be good for the organisation.

Accommodating the occasional positive rule breaking for good of the customer and the organisation without condoning rule breaking is the job of every business leader manager, supervisor and leader. When the normal thing is to crack the whip on deviant behaviour, making room for the occasional deviance can also become a deviant act but if the manager is able to pull it off, then that manager would have also become a good deviant.

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