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Stupid rules at your firm? How to beat 'em

These 3 strategies can help get your company to get rid of policies that prevent employees from pleasing customers.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer
June 26, 2008: 9:32 AM EDT

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I was hired a few months ago into the newly created position of vice president of customer service at a medium-sized company, and I have to admit I am stumped. Since I got here, every time I propose a change that I think would serve customers better (without costing much, if anything), my employees tell me, "We can't do that because it isn't in the rulebook."

Some clown made up this two-inch-thick rulebook many years ago, and everybody here seems to have memorized it. By following these arbitrary rules, we are probably losing customers; I know complaints have been climbing for quite a while (which is why I was hired in the first place). But if I tell everybody to just ignore the rulebook, they'll be flummoxed. Do you have any suggestions? --Veep from Valparaiso

Dear VV: Have I got a book for you! It's called The Milkshake Moment (Wiley, $19.95), and you're going to love the subtitle: Overcoming Stupid Systems, Pointless Policies and Muddled Management to Realize Real Growth. The author, Steven S. Little (www.stevenslittle.com) formerly ran three fast-growth companies and now consults with other companies on how to get out of their own way.

What do milkshakes have to do with it? Simply this: A few years ago, Little stayed at a nice hotel in Baltimore - part of an upscale chain that spends millions annually to market itself to business travelers like him - and ordered a vanilla milkshake from room service. The answer: No, sir, very sorry, no milkshakes, they're not on the menu.

So Little replied, "Do you have vanilla ice cream?" Of course! "How about milk?" Certainly! "How about a tall glass and a long spoon?" Naturally! "Well, then, please bring me a tray with all those items on it," Little said, "and I'll make my own milkshake" - which he did. He's since tried this experiment in over 200 hotels that don't list milkshakes on their menus, each time with the same result.

In other words, hotels have rulebooks too. (They also have turf battles: Little notes that milkshakes are usually made in blenders, and if the blender is in the bar, and the kitchen staff is warring with the bar staff, perhaps because both functions have been outsourced to competing firms... well, you get the picture.)

So Little's book is all about how to create "milkshake moments," meaning "that precise instant in which an organization's people realize they are allowed to do the right thing - to serve the interests of others in order to grow the organization - instead of following the status quo that actually stifles growth."

Far from being just one more example of lousy customer service (we've all experienced a few of those), the missing milkshakes are, Little believes, a symptom of a much bigger problem: Too many companies have forgotten that the way to create real growth is to encourage front-line employees to trust their own judgment and make customers happy.

In a lively style with lots of real-life examples, Little's book tells how to, um, shake up your organization. In the short run, you'll probably have to rewrite the rulebook - and, if it's really two inches thick, cut it way down to include only the points (if any) that you think are worth keeping, even if that leaves only one page. Then, you'll face the longer and more complex task of changing the way employees (and higher-ups) think about customers. Three crucial elements:

1. Think "grow," not status quo. "Stupid systems protect themselves. In seeing their role as that of protectors of the system, most managers do what's comfortable and familiar, rather than doing what needs to be done," observes Little. As a relatively new boss, you have the opportunity to set new goals - higher sales, fewer complaints - and urge people to reach for them. So do it.

2. Put purpose before profit. There's a paradox here, which is that the only way to get higher profits is to stop making them the main focus. "What gets you and your people out of bed in the morning?" asks Little. "It's not the money. Without employees who truly understand why their organization exists, there can be no growth. The purpose of any organization is to identify and serve the relevant needs of those it serves." Come up with a succinct statement of what your purpose is, and keep repeating it until everyone gets it. Says Little, "Invariably, purpose precedes profits."

3. Make customers king (or queen). Little doesn't claim to know any one magic bullet, single policy, or simple rule for improving customer service. He does believe that individual employees know what works best, if you just let them do it. Says he, "If you engage the organization, and remove the self-imposed stupid systems, milkshake moments become routine."

Readers, what do you say? Does your workplace have needless rules or systems that keep you from doing your best for customers - or colleagues? In your career so far, what one rule or policy would you have liked to see changed or abolished, and why? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page