Think of the consequences before enforcing a policy

Most customer service policies allow employees a little discretion to bend the rules as the situation allows. Customer service reps should consider the impact on both the company and the customer when deciding whether to enforce a policy or to make an exception.

The Situation

My wife, Sally, and I flew Southwest Airlines to Las Vegas and back this weekend. On the return flight, we were in different boarding groups.  Sally was in the first "A" group, while I was at the back of the second "B" group. Nonetheless, we attempted to board the plane together since we would inevitably sit next to each other.

The gate agent saw that I wasn't in Sally's boarding group and told us we couldn't board together. To make it worse, she delivered the news rather curtly, using phrases like "you'll have to" and "it's our policy".

The Policy

Southwest Airline's offers open boarding (you can select any open seat), so their policy is passengers must board in the order indicated on their boarding pass. Gate agents are given the discretion to bend this policy a bit, but it is up to them to make the call. This means the gate agent in our situation was following Southwest's policy when she wouldn't let me board with Sally, but she was also empowered to let us board together.

The Impact

Allowing me to board with Sally would have made no impact on Southwest Airlines or other passengers. Since Sally was one of the first to board, she was able to save me a seat so we both sat together. Our small carry-on bags fit under our seats, so we didn't take up any precious overhead bin space that sometimes gets full as the last passengers boarded.

The impact on me was minor, but certainly annoying. I was momentarily separated from my wife and felt the gate agent had been rude to me when she wouldn't allow Sally and I to board together. Was this the end of the world? Certainly not. But, it underscores the need for employees to focus on both their customers and their company when deciding whether or not to stick to the letter of the policy.

Full disclosure: I'm a huge fan of Southwest Airlines and will continue to fly them regularly.