The Myth of Treating People Fairly and EquallyBy Jeff Mowatt
I’ll just come right-out and say it. I believe that treating customers fairly and equally is a mistake. It’s unprofitable. It belittles customers and employees. And it’s unethical. There, I’ve said it.
Certainly, we should treat people fairly – but not equally. I’m not advocating some Orwellian decree that ‘some animals are more equal than others’. This has nothing to do with a customer’s value as a person. It has to do with bending so-called ‘rules’ to give exceptional customers the kind of unique service they deserve.
In my many years working as a consultant and trainer with dozens of companies and bureaucracies, it’s unfortunate that I continue to encounter employees who buy-in to the myth of the virtue of treating all customers equally. If this is the case in your organization, consider this scenario…
Imagine that as part of your daily routine, you stop into your local convenience store to buy a coffee and newspaper. The store employees know you by sight. One day you find yourself needing to change a $100 bill. You stop in, pick up a couple of items and pay for them with the hundred. The store has a policy that they don’t accept hundreds, so the cashier simply refuses you. You are fully aware that they make more than that much change every 15 minutes. You also know that when added-up, you’ve given them hundreds if not thousands of dollars worth of business over the years. Yet they refuse to grant you this slight favor. How’s your customer loyalty now?
Refusing your $100 bill would have been an incredibly bad decision on the part of the cashier as well as the management who created the ‘rule’ that permits no exceptions for the store’s best customers. The problem is that by definition a ‘rule’ treats everyone equally – whether it’s fair or not.
What if we treated our children this way?
Imagine the consequences of a parent treating their six-year-old and seventeen-year-old equally. That would mean telling the younger child, “Make sure you are home from grade one by midnight!” Most people appreciate that it makes sense to treat children fairly. It would, however, be a mistake to treat them all equally, and apply the same rules regardless of their ages. That’s more than just a mistake; we might even call it immoral.
We already discriminate in the workplace
There’s a certain irony to taking this approach to the workplace. The same individuals who assume that all customers should be treated equally, often have no objection whatsoever to the organization offering preferential parking and restroom facilities to customers with disabilities. Yet, that’s a blatant example of treating customers fairly but not equally. I don’t know of anyone who objects to organizations giving better parking spots to the disabled. Yet, every day we hear employees using inane statements like, “If I did that for you, I’d have to do it for everyone.” The challenge for business owners and managers is providing the kind of training and authority that front-line employees need, so that they will make more appropriate on-the-spot decisions for customers.
The truth about word-of-mouth
“What happens when customers talk to each other?” That’s one of the most common concerns I hear from employees in my training sessions where we address this subject. They are afraid that if they accommodate one customer’s special request, then that customer will talk to other customers, and the employee will be pressured to do the same for everyone, which, of course, they can’t do. In other words, they’re going to have a lot of unhappy people out there if they accommodate special requests. This is the kind of convoluted logic that stems from the underlying belief in treating everyone equally (not necessarily fairly). Another way of putting it is: I’m afraid that if I provide an extra service for one customer (because we made an error or the customer does a lot of business with us), then I’m going to disappoint other customers whose circumstances don’t warrant the extra service. So to avoid disappointing some people, we’ll just make a rule that no one gets special treatment. That way, we’ll just disappoint everyone, including customers whose unique situation deserves extra service.
Customers understand the concept of fairness. If I’ve never been to a particular convenience store and suddenly walk in just to change a hundred-dollar bill, I’m not likely to get outraged when the employee explains that they don’t have enough change on hand so they can’t help me. If, on the other hand, I’m doing business there every day, I’m more likely to be upset ifmy store won’t make change for me when I know they make that much change every fifteen minutes. If they do make an exception for me because I’m a good customer, I’m not going to rush out, phone all my friends, and tell them, “Hey, my convenience store made change for me, and they don’t usually accept hundreds!” Customers rarely go out of their way to talk about good service. The occasion when customers share information about a business is when the service is bad. Bottom line: employees needn’t worry about possible negative ramifications of taking extra care of good customers. What they should be far more concerned about is the negative impact of treating all customers the same.