Thinking outside the vestibule

Disclaimer: this story happened about two years ago.

Disclaimer to the disclaimer: it's still pretty insane.


So in the city of Chicago, you don't really need a car. Depending on where you work, it is often quite feasible to commute using public transportation. In the spring of 2005, I was finishing up grad school and planning for my new life which included, among other things, finally buying a car.

But on this particular day in April, I did not have a car. What I had was a check, a check that desperately needed depositing. I was low on funds, and I'd made a regrettable transaction that would put my account in the red within 24 hours. Plus, I was going out of town the next day. So basically, it was now or never. But I wasn't worried. I walked out of my house and down the street, to my local LaSalle Bank.

I've been a customer of LaSalle Bank for almost ten years. I think I joined out of necessity; they were the prescribed bank of choice for Northwestern students when I was a freshman. But I'm fine with this. In their many years of service, I have found LaSalle to be convenient, consistent and pleasant. Hardly a blip on the radar.

So it's Friday, and it's 6:30. The branch closed at 6. Shoot. I walk around the side, and the drive-thru is open until 7. Sweet. The outdoor ATM is obviously open too, so I try that first. But this particular ATM decides to be "not accepting deposits at this time." Shoot.

Still, it's no problem. The drive-thru teller's window is open for another half an hour. So I wait for a car to drive away, and then I walk up to the window. There's a man sitting behind the glass. I give him a smile. Then, because I think I'm a pretty funny girl, I make a gesture like I'm resting one hand on the steering wheel.

He doesn't smile. I use the other hand to gesture "honk honk" on my imaginary horn.

Nothing. Confused, I tap the glass.

"I'm sorry ma'am, but this window is for customers in cars."

He's obviously joking, so I laugh and shake my head. "Oh, right! Heh heh! Yes. Good one. Now I really need to deposit this check."

"Ma'am, I'm very sorry. But I can't perform that transaction. This window is only for customers in cars."

The city noises fade to silence in the background. All I hear is the echo of his words: "Customers in cars...cars...cars..."

"Wait, you're serious? But your lobby is closed! The ATM is broken! Sir, I need to deposit this check. My account is going to go under. Can't you just take it? Please?"

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

Wow. I'm dumbfounded. I slowly take a couple steps, then stop. Then look back. My confusion turns to anger. Customers in cars? That doesn't make an ounce of sense! Here I am, a loyal customer for eight years, and because I'm not seated behind the wheel of a paycheck-eating, gas-drinking, life-endangering and wholly unnecessary motor vehicle, he won't serve me? What could possibly be the reason for this?

Is it safety? Will I get run over by the car behind me? Or is it validation? By having a car, am I somehow proving myself to be a worthy LaSalle Bank customer? Or is it just a policy? A policy that sounded good in the positive - "Our drive-up is for customers in cars" - and was now being interpreted by its corollary negative - "Our drive-up is NOT for customers NOT in cars."

Whatever the reason, I was pissed. I turned to face the traffic going by. And then, I had an idea.

It took me about seven seconds to hail a cab. I leaned in and told the driver to turn around, that we were going through the LaSalle Bank drive-thru. The cabbie was confused, so I quickly explained what had just gone down.

"THAT IS BULLS--T!" he roared in a thick accent. This dude got mad so fast, I barely had time to slam the door before he stepped on the gas. Perhaps he was someone who had experienced this kind of inept corporate bureaucracy himself. Either way, he was on my side. We squealed around and pulled up into the teller lane.

The cabbie rolled forward until my window was lined up with the bank's window. There was a split second of awkwardness, and I asked him to please roll down my window. Then I saw the teller's face, saw it change from confused to embarassed.

"Hello! Hi there!" I waved with a big obnoxious grin. "Here I am! In a car! I'm a customer, and I'm in a car! Just like you said! NOW PLEASE TAKE MY CHECK."

And you know what? He did. After a moment's hesitation, he opened the slot and, through the backseat window of a Chicago Checker cab, I handed him the envelope.


Customer service is a balancing act. For most companies who have retail locations, spread out across a region or country or planet, headquarters has to decide what to control, and what to let go. Depending on the company, one of two strategies tends to emerge.

Some companies empower their employees, viewing them as an asset. They decentralize decision-making and equip their workers with the tools to make good choices. These companies trust their store managers to display products the right way in each local market. They trust their salespeople to say the right thing, without enforcing a script. They provide employees with tips and frameworks, but leave enough room for interpretation that former drones turn into humans.

Other companies control their employees, viewing them as a liability. They standardize operations and issue strict guidelines. One small improvement can save millions of dollars, while one small mistake can cost even more. These companies provide machinery so advanced, it can cook a burger with zero opportunity for error. They send their drivers on step-by-step routes that minimize the use of left turns. They limit their workers' accountability, preferring to keep them on tighter leashes. They might make fewer mistakes, but they also make fewer great impressions. Plus, their workers are inevitably reduced. Humans fade away, and drones emerge.

Of course, different employees in different areas of a company will have more or less autonomy - depending on things like experience, customer interaction and the task at hand. I'm guessing that someone making fries at Mickey D's does not have permission to say, "I think I'll try adding cinnamon!" Whereas someone managing the same restaurant is empowered to grant the customer a refund, if the fries were sprinkled with nutmeg.

But there is an obvious contrast in the level of empowerment between comparable employees at different companies. You can just sense it. How much "the rules" matter becomes evident when you are redeeming just-expired gift cards, for example, or when you have to show two forms of ID and you only have one. Basically, the rules only matter when they are being questioned. And whether or not the employee is "allowed" to break the rules often makes the big difference in the do-or-die issue of customer loyalty.

Ultimately, I believe it comes down to a fundamental trust in people. And hey, I'm not saying every company has to trust all its employees. Not every stock boy is the sharpest tool in the hardware department. But employee empowerment is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you limit people, they will behave with a limited outlook. They'll blindly follow rules because they weren't trained to think otherwise. But if you trust people, and empower them with training, they will see the rules from the viewpoint of the customer. Empathetic employees - isn't that what everyone wants?


It was recently announced that LaSalle Bank is being sold to Bank of America. A new company will come in, change the rules and present its own philosophies on customer service. Maybe they'll have trusted, autonomous employees. Maybe they'll have some wonky policies of their own. I only hope that if one day, I walk up to a drive-thru, they'll take my deposit.


Mike said...

Too bad they don't give their employees the same power that Nordstrom does with their " Nordstrom Rule #1 - Use good judgement in all situations. There will be no additional rules...."

I recently had some bad vibes out of a bank and posted about it, but I'm not going to hijack your comments and link it up.

Great post and the pictures are tremendous !

sara said...

Mike, that's a great example. Probably the best one there is. Nordstrom basically invented "The customer is always right," and their employees are more expected to bend the rules than they are to follow them.

The photos are a dramatic recreation of real events. Glad you like them!

George said...

How much was the cab ride? I usually hate paying ATM fees, but this is ridiculous.

sara said...

Haha, George.

I think I gave the cab $5 for his trouble. Then I walked home.

Jason of "Kim & Jason" said...

Holy cow. On one hand, I can't even believe something like this is possible, but then on the other hand, I've experienced it myself too many times to know that it is more than possible. I experienced a similar head scratching moment at Staples (Staples is a Stupid Doo Doo Head) but this one really takes the cake, Sara.

This is the big takeaway for me, and one I think should be e-mailed to every CEO in the world: "If you limit people, they will behave with a limited outlook. They'll blindly follow rules because they weren't trained to think otherwise. But if you trust people, and empower them with training, they will see the rules from the viewpoint of the customer."

Nice take.

sara said...

Hi Jason, thanks for your comment. Your Staples story is pretty ridiculous too! "There are no options." Awesome. She's obviously been handed a big book of rules with the words "Do Not Break" painted in red.

I think you and I both proved something with our encounters: There are always options.

Bill said...

What a great post. First, I must say that I admire your creativity! I can only hope that this employee told this story to others in the company and they realized how stupid some policies are. I think that many policies are introduced as a short cut or replacement for training and autonomy (bad idea). Many policies linger only to keep the status quo happy (that is the way we have always done it). This post is a good reminder to check our company policies from the outside looking in, as a customer encountering them for the first time. Thanks!

Nancy said...

So Sara, when you "dramatically recreated" the pictures, what did that teller say?

sara said...

Nancy, funny that you ask. There was a female teller there, and I heard her through her little microphone. She said, "Nice car."

Perhaps they've lightened up a bit in the past two years!

Gatherings said...

I think my comment disapeared, so if this posts twice, forgive!

What is striking about this post is YOUR resourcefulness, Sarah! If emplyees could ever be this resourceful, just imagine!!!

sara said...

No worries, Gatherings. If your comment appears twice, I'll delete the second one.

Anyway, thanks! You are so right. Imagine if the employee had said, "Psst, listen, my boss is right behind me so I have to follow this rule. But if you wanna jump in a cab, that would work!"

I suppose it was resourcefulness, but it was also simply literal interpretation. My mind was going, "Must - be - in - car." Then I saw a car that I could, well, be in.

I think the key was stooping to their level. If they were going to interpret the rules so technically, then I was going to beat them at their own game.

UMD said...

Ha ha, what a brilliant story, and how clever of you to deal with it the way you did! I doubt, however, it was LaSalle's fault in this case except in the indirect sense of hiring such a narrow-minded idiot. I bet if you reenacted this scenario, ninety nine times out of hundred, this wouldn't happen to you.

sara said...

UMD, good point. When I went back this time, the woman seemed to have a sense of humor. So agreed, all of their employees are probably not so narrow-minded.

Although I'd be curious to test this out - go back on foot, and see if they would take my deposit. If I do it I'll let you know!

UMD said...

You know, Sara, the next time I have to make a transaction at the bank, I will try this myself here in Houston, not with LaSalle but with Chase, and see what happens. I will get back to you.

sara said...

We have Chase in Chicago as well. I'm excited for your experiment! Let us know how it goes.

Kim said...

A post of mine, just up, that you might find of interest: Sunday, May 27, 2007 -CUSTOMER SERVICE - we are in the Dark Ages...

Adam said...

There's a man sitting behind the glass. I give him a smile. Then, because I think I'm a pretty funny girl, I make a gesture like I'm resting one hand on the steering wheel.

He doesn't smile. I use the other hand to gesture "honk honk" on my imaginary horn.

Sara, I think I love you. Will you marry me?



sara said...

Kim, thanks for the reference - but I can't find your blog. Do you want to write a new comment and link to it?

Adam, this is a first, and I'm flattered. In one word, no. In 11 words, I have a boyfriend and you appear to live in Europe.

robin said...

Unfortunately I am sure that the ridiculous policy stories abound. I view this as the poor fool that was following a rule he probably found ridiculous as well. Afraid for his job, he was not aloud to use his own good judgement. He had a foolish boss and policies that tied his hands. All companies should adopt "Rule #1: use good judgment in all situations. Rule #2: Do what you think is right. And for customers remember...the employees goal is not to make you angry. In most instances they are doing their best.

Adam said...

Adam, this is a first.

Sigh. Those North American men don't know what they have got.

But seriously, Sara, your humour and chutzpah added to your service-savvy to make your blog a great read. Keep it up!


sara said...

Robin, it's true - most employees aren't trying to make you mad. While you are a real human being, from their standpoint you are not as important a human as their boss. (They see hundreds of you a day, and you are not the one writing their paychecks either).

So, I don't fault the teller. Poor guy. I hope he's working for a company with more understanding policies.

Adam, haha. Thanks.

Adam said...


just to let you know, I quoted some of your wisdom in this post:



Cheney said...

OMG, that is too funny. Ya know back in the ol' art school days, 4 of us friends decided to walk next door to the McDonald's and being without a car we "seated" ourselves in the 4 person car position, one of us at the wheel, 1 in the passenger seat and 2 in the back and proceded to place our order. We "drove" around to the first window and the look on the girl's face was priceless. I think we stunned her so much she didn't even try to say she couldn't serve us! Plus I think we had some power in numbers, and I would hope the bank teller has a little bit more security concerns than the McDonald's next to the bowling alley at 11pm at night.
What a perfect example though of rules defeating the purpose of good customer service. I just had a lovely experience with Southwest airlines where the rep "bent" the rules for me to change a flight and I gave kudos to her manager, and they even sent me a postcard thanking me for thanking them! Service works great when you hire employees that can think for themselves...

USF gal said...

I experience the same thing a few years ago at the University of South Florida credit union (on campus, where there are no cabs). They will not accept you on a bike either even if there is no one around. They saw it as a safety problem. However they were nice enough to meet me at the lobby door to take my deposit.

厦门 said...

power balance
silly bandz
EFX bracelet
Raymond Weil Watches
concord papillon
wedding dresses develop quality for discerning customers and Experience the comfort, free shipping.
Buy evening dresses with a price guarantee and top rated customer service.