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Date: 25 September 2008 

Employees break the rules to help customers

We all love the shop assistant or call centre employee who goes the extra mile to help us. But when these employees' actions use their organisation's resources or break its rules, do they benefit or damage the organisation?

Research by Queensland University of Technology PhD business student Cheryl Leo is shedding light on the types and motivation of employees who go against organisational norms and rules to benefit their customers.

After in-depth interviews of 22 frontline service employees across the age range about their customer interaction, Ms Leo discerned three types of what she has termed "pro-customer defiance".

"I found some employees will change the service delivery to benefit a customer, such as the travel agent who, when a client hadn't paid on time and had lost his booking, phoned around other agencies to find him a seat on the same flight at the original price," Ms Leo said.

"A second category is related to information-giving, for instance, an employee might tell a customer they could buy the same item cheaper down the road.

"One participant in my study even hinted to a customer that his organisation wasn't acting fairly and approaching the ombudsman might be the best way out."

Ms Leo said employees sometimes used more organisational resources than authorised to satisfy customers.

"An example of this was the hotel employees who took the car of a guest down to the garage and detailed it themselves using the hotel's equipment because they knew the guest was going to propose to his girlfriend in the car that day and no other car valet service was available."

Ms Leo said employees appeared to step outside the norm for customers when they felt empathy for them or if they disagreed with the organisation's policies and procedures.

"Some participants expressed a feeling of righteousness in their actions. They saw it as a moral action," she said.

"Some study participants said they did it because it was 'always right to help others' or 'if it was me, I would want to be treated this way'."

Ms Leo said her study grew out of the rising trend of customer advocacy where large organisations such as banks used an 'internal ombudsman' to champion the cause of customers: "I am looking at what is an informal sort of customer advocacy."

Organisations needed to understand this phenomenon because while going the extra mile could increase customer loyalty, it could form loyalty to the employee rather than the service organisation and if the employee leaves, the customer may go with them, she said.

"Employees could also risk bringing their organisations into disrepute or create service inconsistencies which unnecessarily raise customers' expectations to an impossible level. It may also be costly or unprofitable for the organisation."

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, QUT media, 07 3138 1841 or n.widdowson@qut.edu.au
** High res pic of Ms Leo available for media use.

 

Cheryl Leo