I wrote recently about how the term “representative” can take on a different meaning depending on whether you consider your front-line agents as representatives of you as a brand, or of your Customers as they navigate your systems.

When dealing with a hospitality brand recently, that came to mind.  There was a discrepancy and I kept repeating my point with every new escalation (I was passed off from one department to anther a couple times, and then up the supervisory chain).  At every point, all I got from the folks on the phone was a reiteration of the company’s policy.  Okay, I get your policy.  In fact, I was aware of it before I called.  That’s actually kind of why I’m calling.  What I’m asking for isn’t an explanation of it (over and over again from different people), but rather an exception to it (which reminded me of another article I’d recently penned, about not taking ‘no’ as an answer from someone who’s not authorized to say, ‘yes’).  Your telling me what your policy is over and over doesn’t change anything from my perspective.

And, in fairness, my reiterating that I’m displeased and unsatisfied and what I want wasn’t changing anything from their perspective, either.  If they’re not going to give me what I want and offer me satisfaction, it’s simply not going to happen.

What struck me was the incredible amount of waste that exists in a system like that:  They’ve hired gate keepers deliberately to stand in the way of my getting what I want.  These people at the “help desk” aren’t there to, well…help.  Instead, they’re simply there to keep me from getting anything out of the company.

Now, maybe some brands don’t see it as a waste, but that’s precisely why they have those folks:  Their job is to stand athwart a Customer’s attempt to go around The Policy.  It’s not to make the Customers whole, or even try to make good in another way.  They’re simply there to keep them out of the vault.

They’re not there to help Customers, they’re there to protect the company.  (Which, I probably don’t need to point out, is a world’s worth of difference away from protecting the company’s brand.)

It’s the sort of revelation that can occur to some brands if they care to think about it:  Are the people you hire to interact with your Customers there to provide solutions for your Customers?  Or are they only there to provide friction to them and keep them away from the solutions they’re seeking.

I used to wonder how much companies spend employing people only to deprive them of the authority (and in some cases, even the tools) to help their Customers.  Every penny spent putting someone into a position that you’ve not imbued with the authority and trust to actually do that job you’ve hired them to do is wasted, right?  I think we can all agree with that.

But maybe that’s the whole point.  Maybe some companies don’t hire Customer-facing people for that reason anyway, but for another one altogether:  to keep their Customers from taking advantage of them.  If you are hiring front-line agents and folks whose entire existence is to keep Customers from getting (for example) free exchanges or upgrades or make-goods when you screw up or upset them, then yes, I suppose they’re doing exactly the job you’ve hired them to do.  And maybe you’ve calculated that, the loss of Customers—either because you simply don’t take care of them, or because they take offense that you trust them so little—is worth the savings you realize from never giving anything away.  The salaries for these folks is probably just an overhead cost toward that end, if you take that approach.

I suppose that’s one way to run a company.