Policy, scourge of the people

Peter Seebach ([mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net?cc=htc@us.ibm.com&subject=Policy, scourge of the people] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net) Freelance writer 1 Jul 2004

Abstract: Company policies have gradually grown from a way to keep practices consistent into a catch-all excuse for inappropriate behavior. In this installment, cranky Peter Seebach explains why policy can be the enemy of the customer and the company, as well as why using the word "empowerment" in a corporate setting is so wrong.

For some reason, whenever a company has to do something mindlessly inconvenient, it's called policy.

My cell phone died. The company agrees that it's toast and that it's under warranty, so they will replace it -- next Tuesday. The customer service rep can't give me one of the phones right there in the store -- he has to special order one. Policy says the reps can't make warranty exchanges from inventory.

Why? I have no idea. It seems to me that giving me a phone from inventory, then replacing it with the ordered one is economically equivalent except for the effect on the customer. But it's policy. You can't change policy. You can't argue with it.

Policy isn't set by a person or a group of people. Policy is a force of nature. No human set that policy. No one had any input into it. It just happened. One day, the CEO came into his office and spied a binder on his desk. He didn't know where it came from. Perhaps it was left by elves.

If you want to experience the full runaround that a company can offer, try to find out how policy is set. You won't -- I can tell you that right now. You won't be able to find out things like: "Did any specific employee still at the company have input into the process?" No one can talk to you about policy and no one knows who created the policy. This is just The Way It Is.

Please, don't torture your online customers this way.

Policy is the enemy of the customer

I sometimes think that policies are crafted as a way to avoid explaining to people why you're not helping them. Most policies have careful divisions of boundaries. The goal of these divisions is to make sure that no one person can ever address your concerns.

When I wanted to start paying for a phone line into my house that my employer used to pay for, it was impossible. I couldn't transfer a phone line from business to residential because only the business department handled business lines (which it was) and only the residential department handled residential lines. The only option they offered was to transfer the line to my own name, creating a brand-new business account charged at several times the residential rate. Then I could transfer the line to residential which "usually only takes a couple of weeks."

After a lot of fighting, I somehow convinced them to agree to do the transfer some other way. The danger in this approach is that I still don't know what they did. I do know that they didn't do it when they said they would, but eventually the line showed up on my regular phone bill at the regular rate.

You find the division of responsibility a lot. In the instance of my cell phone, while I waited to be told that the store couldn't give me a new phone until next week, a very nice man who spoke only a little English tried to talk to a store representative about a billing problem. He had tried out a cell phone with the understanding that he could return it within two weeks and pay nothing if it didn't work out. The store reps told him to call customer service. Customer service, of course, says you have to go into a store and talk to someone there. I know -- I was in the store at the behest of the customer service department. But when you get to the store, they can't make any decisions. If you want a decision made, you have to talk to customer service.

I wonder how anything gets done. Do they follow the same policy internally? Would I want to work for a company where the HR and Finance departments played that kind of game with my paychecks? "Sorry, paying your salary is an HR function. You'll have to talk to Human Resources." "I'm sorry, but the company policy is that only Finance can issue checks."

Policy is the enemy of the company

What's not immediately obvious is that jerking consumers around like this doesn't help the company. It is worth considering that every time I get tangled in a web of conflicting policies, I spend a few hours trying to reach someone. That's a few hours on the phone with support staff, customer service, or others. Pretty soon that eats up the few dollars in question. And it doesn't exactly create customer loyalty.

Even more disturbing is when people within the company face the same kind of runaround. People have amusing horror stories about trying to get their work done at large companies with volumes of firmly designed policies. While funny, these are still horror stories. Often these stories represent highly-paid technical staff wasting days or weeks of company time, spinning their wheels and twiddling their thumbs.

Furthermore, think of the effects of so-called policy on morale. No one likes being yelled at for things beyond their control, but many company policies give employees no control over the things that make customers and even other employees legitimately angry. They just have to sit there and think about how unfair their company is being while smiling, nodding, and taking all the abuse.

The person who actually came up with the policy is probably in Bermuda, sitting on the beach. He doesn't care.

Empowerment is mostly just a buzzword

As everyone knows, the solution is empowerment. Give employees the power to make decisions that will get their jobs done, make customers happy, and so on. Sounds great, but no one does it. The problems to be worked out are real. If you give someone authority, he then has to exercise it. He can be blamed if the decision doesn't make the customer happy. The customer, if he knows the employee can help him, can make the employee's life miserable.

The alternatives are worse. In the absence of accountability, companies become very hostile to everyone near them. They have no immediate reason not to be; they can save a lot of money by cutting corners. Or at least it seems that way. Presumably, somewhere in the phone company, someone is happily counting the number of phones-in-inventory he saved with a surreal policy -- while the person who pays for the expensive shipments of single phones (instead of cheaper shipments of whole boxes of them) weeps softly.

The most stunning examples of abusive policies seem to be in marketing. Of course. Privacy policies aren't just left by elves, they're left by unseelie elves.

un-see-lie \uhn-'see-lee\ adj1 the opposite of seelie 2 a: that which is unfavorable to mankind b: unholy 3 THE HORDE (see hell ride) 4n the state of being beaten and pinched and forced to participate in bizarre nocturnal activities

No one at the company can say why it is that you have to give your social security number to stop being spammed, but that's Policy and you'll have to do it.

It's probably impractical to expect individuals to give the people at the counter the ability to override policies. What they can and should do is to build in some kind of accountability. The people who make the policy decisions should be reachable by phone and by mail during business hours. Not a voicemail box that no one checks. The rule should be that you get to talk to a policy maker (or someone who can bend policy). The policy maker should be on the hook to justify policy decisions. If that's too hard, maybe those decisions aren't the right decisions.

At the very least, every policy should have an owner. Someone, or some group, who takes responsibility for the policy and is accountable for its effects.

Without this accountability in place, it becomes impossible for anyone, even corporate management, to confront problems with policy.


About the author

Peter Seebach would love to explain exactly why and how he wrote this column, but it's against his policy. And no, you can't talk to any human that had input into it. (Kidding.) Join him to best this force of nature at [mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.