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.