Do You Know When to Break the Rules?

Posted by on August 2, 2016 in Service Desk

Service desk rules

My colleague Ivor McFarlane once described the concept of intelligent disobedience to me. This term was first used in relation to guide dogs.  Service animals need to be trained to obey their owners. However, there may be times when the dog has more knowledge about the environment than the owner – for example if the pedestrian crossing light is green but a car is approaching very fast. In that case obedience would actually pose a threat to the owner’s safety. Dogs can be trained to exercise judgement and to refuse to obey orders when this is the case.  This idea has important business applications; we can train staff to exercise judgement rather than always mechanically follow rules or predetermined scripts. Staff who know when they should NOT follow the rules, and who are empowered to act on this knowledge can make better decisions.


Ivor has written an excellent blog on the topic if you want to learn more.

When you are aware of a concept such as “intelligent disobedience” you find yourself noticing situations to which it applies. I was shopping in a large department store recently, and I spotted an unfortunate interaction between a shop assistant and a customer. The customer was a young woman, who was very modestly dressed and wearing a headscarf. She approached the changing rooms and spoke to the male shop assistant on duty, asking: “Do you have any female staff members in this area?” The shop assistant was very polite and explained that there were female staff members, but they were all “too busy” to serve customers at the moment, and he couldn’t interrupt them. He explained that he was responsible for serving in that area of the store and offered to help her himself, with every appearance of enthusiasm.

The customer didn’t make a fuss, she just quietly declined his offer of assistance and left. Presumably she went to a different shop, where they might actually listen to what she was asking for and make reasonable accommodations for her needs.

I wondered why the young sales assistant failed to recognize that the store was about to lose a probable sale.  I wondered why he felt he couldn’t “interrupt” a female colleague, but had to serve the customer himself. I wondered what all the female sales staff were doing that could possibly be more important than selling to the store’s customers. I also wondered whether that disappointed customer would ever be back.

Teaching Service Desk Agents about Business-Focused Empathy

So how does my story above relate to the service desk?

Well, I have seen many similar interactions between users and service desks.  What look like small failures to understand what users really want can be symptoms of a systemic failure to see the way things look from a user’s perspective, and can lead to low levels of satisfaction. Just like the young woman in the department store, users may decide to go elsewhere for help, and this can result in poor efficiency for both users and the IT organization.

Of course, a typical service desk tends to be very busy. It deals with a huge number of issues, and the sheer volume of work may mean that the service desk is simply not set up to deal with users as individuals, each with their own specific concerns and issues.

This is where the right kind of training comes in. It is vital to train service desk agents to follow the rules, and stick to the defined process, except when that is the wrong thing to do. Any agent that keeps breaking the rules, and rarely follows the process, is going to cause a lot of issues. This should be followed up – the agent may need retraining, or indeed, the rules themselves may need to be reviewed. BUT an agent who follows procedures slavishly, even when this results in pain for their customers, is also doing the wrong thing. We must teach service desk agents a kind of business-focused empathy. They need to think about the ways in which their actions affect users and customers. They need to know how to listen to people and to consider the impact of the support they offer on the customers’ business processes.

For example, when a user reports that their printer isn’t working, the service desk agent probably has a pre-defined script to follow, and the interaction may end with someone being dispatched to replace or repair the printer. These scripts obviously help the service desk do the right thing most of the time, which means that responses to routine issues and requests probably run efficiently. But sometimes following the script may not be right for the customer. And if (like the shop assistant in my department store story) staff haven’t been trained to recognize when being “too busy” to do things differently is inappropriate, then business outcomes will be adversely affected.

If the user really needs that printout very urgently, then waiting for the printer to be mended may be the standard response, but it’s not the right one. One of my customers had an excellent service desk, and one of the things that made it excellent was that the service desk agents really understood the business, and were trusted to use that knowledge, even if it meant departing from the standard scripts. When a particular user called the service desk to say that their printer wasn’t working the agent understood that waiting for a repair wasn’t a viable option.  Instead the response was “Email the document to me. I’ll print it out and bring it to your desk”. Now clearly this isn’t the way to respond to every printer fault, but in this particular case, the agent understood the urgency of the need for the printed document, felt empowered to use their initiative, and responded correctly.

How Can You Encourage Intelligent Disobedience?

If you want your service desk agents to make the right decisions, then your management must create the environment where this can happen.

Firstly, you should communicate the organizational vision and values to all your staff. Make sure that everyone knows what is important to you as an organization, and as an IT department, and as a service desk. Give them a clear understanding of how the organization creates value, and how they contribute to that. Ideally you should provide them with opportunities to spend some time working in other business units, so they can learn about what is important to their users.

Secondly, you should measure and reward the behaviours you want to encourage. Get people to report when they went outside the process to delight a customer, and then ask those customers for feedback. Maybe you could create a “customer advocate of the month” award, or something similar to show that you really do care about this.

Thirdly, make sure that your governance framework supports intelligent disobedience. Review your policies and procedures and make sure they have sufficient flexibility to allow people to do the right thing.

And Finally …

It’s time to reflect on the title of this blog. Do you know when to break the rules? Do you empathize with users and think about the impact of your actions on them? Or do you just follow an ITSM process and expect your users to be grateful, because, after all, you are following best practice, aren’t you?

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