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Bending the rules in retail – exploring customer-oriented deviance

In all walks of life, across every industry and every level of society, there are those who bend the rules. Retail is no different. But what inspires some employees to break the rules to help a customer?

For example, a shop assistant who provides a refund without a docket. Or a department manager who allows a small child to sample new season strawberries for free. Or a store manager who waives a delivery fee and drops a customer’s online order to their home because they missed an order deadline.

All of these instances are examples of team members breaching a company policy, albeit to provide excellent customer-service outcomes. We call this “customer-oriented deviance”.

Of further interest to FMCG firms are the outcomes of such behaviour. Does allowing your teams the flexibility to “bend the rules” lead to positive or negative overall commercial outcomes?

As a part of ongoing consumer research, I have explored this topic, finding that employees were motivated to break or bend company policies for a number of reasons. Some have a genuine desire to help a customer in need, others seek to improve job efficiency by removing bureaucratic red tape or avoid protracted arguments with customers, while others secretly have self-interest at heart.

Drivers of customer-oriented deviance

Beginning with pro-social, other-directed helping behaviours, literature has identified situations in which frontline service employees engage in constructive, socially desirable behaviours that benefit others, with little or no benefit to themselves. For example, an employee who provides a customer’s child with a small chocolate to stop them crying, or a barista who offers a customer a free coffee because they left their wallet at home. 

Frontline service teams also seek to make their jobs easier, and will therefore engage in customer-oriented deviance to improve job efficiencies, such as removing bureaucratic processes. 

Consistent with the idea that customer-oriented deviance is also an adaptive response to ever-changing workplace demands – such as inadequate time, resources and shifting customer and management expectations – employees may break rules to meet these expectations. For example, cuts to staffing may create a greater need for efficiency (ie, taking shortcuts) in ways that are not officially sanctioned by the organisation but that seem consistent with the retailer’s customer-service expectations.

In order to reduce emotional labour, service employees may also engage in customer-oriented deviance to avoid conflict with difficult customers. For example, quickly processing a full refund for a frustrated shopper without a purchase receipt, to avoid a prolonged argument.

Finally, while removing red-tape and reducing emotional labour has indirect benefits for retail employees, other employees may also be motivated to engage in customer-oriented deviance for direct benefits, such as reward and recognition for good service. Researchers have indicated that managers who place too much pressure on sales quotas may be unknowingly contributing to their employees’ deviant behaviours.

Types of customer-oriented deviance

Employees engage in several different types of customer-oriented deviant behaviours. It has been identified that employees will adapt service procedures, openly communicate honest opinions about their company or product that may not be favourable, spend extra time with a customer or provide free products or services.

Team members may often engage in “deviant service adaptation”, by simply modifying the way they deliver a service and by ignoring company procedures. Examples like offering to extend a promotional price, despite the promotion ending a day earlier. They may also deviate from prescribed or standard company communication policy. An employee may openly discuss their company’s bad practices if they think it is necessary. For example, a team member who gives a customer an honest opinion about their company even when it is negative. 

Similarly, they may also engage in deviant service communication of a product. Telling a customer not to buy a particular product, because the employee knows the product has a history of failing. A company’s time and resources are also exposed to customer-oriented deviant behaviours – a checkout operator who spends too much time chatting with a shopper than is required, or a barista who gives away a free coffee to a regular customer.

Outcomes of customer-oriented deviance

As a result of “bending the rules” to help their customers (and to some extent themselves), it has been discovered that team members will rate more highly their own service performance, considering themselves to be more responsive, reliable and empathetic than others. Once these perceptions have formed, these retail workers then experience greater overall job satisfaction and accordingly, feel more committed to the retail organisation. 

In order to demonstrate customer-oriented deviance, team members need to voluntarily deviate from company rules or procedures. The “voluntary” behavioural element is important, as it delineates this phenomenon from pro-customer behavioural intentions, which are normally set within service guidelines. Customer service literature contends that team members who feel empowered to make decisions and are able to voluntarily apply rules, procedures and processes with a degree of autonomy tend to have a higher perception of their own level of performance, or their team’s performance, over others.

It is suggested that FMCG firms with a positive service climate encourage employee behaviours that result in the delivery of service excellence. Herein, retail employees interpret various cues (level of autonomy, ability to make independent decisions), within their environment that indicate service quality is important, expected and rewarded, and this prompts them to take appropriate actions to change their attitude and behaviour accordingly.

When team members feel empowered in their job, and have the necessary skills, they will have higher levels of job satisfaction. Studies in services marketing have shown that perceptions of service quality and satisfaction are closely related constructs. Satisfied frontline team members are more committed to continuous improvement and to delivering quality service. Studies have also shown that satisfied employees are highly motivated, have good morale at work and perform more effectively and efficiently. And several studies have previously determined job satisfaction to have a significant impact on organisational commitment and loyalty.

From a managerial perspective, it is suggested that management should empower their employees to make decisions to provide great customer service, within reason. Setting parameters provides team members with some guidance and flexibility, but also surety that they would be in trouble for going outside company norms.

Gary Mortimer is a professor in marketing and international business at Queensland University of Technology.

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