Interpersonal Flexibility|Jill Lublin

If you are in business, you have probably been burned too many times to count. We have all learned from one bad experience to another that it is critical to protect ourselves. However, there is always a time and a place for flexibility. Bending to the conditions that catch you off guard is not the same as being pushed around. Of course, you will discern which conditions you should adapt to in order to sustain your business, while others will expose themselves as being dangerous. Think of flexibility as proverbially picking and choosing your battles.

For instance, my contract agreement includes a cancellation clause that states if a call is missed or a person is egregiously late, the time still counts as a session. When a longtime client of mine missed our scheduled call, I knew something was up. Days later, I heard from her that she had food poisoning. This client and I had a long relationship with precedence of her being on time, so of course I didn’t count the session.

Anyone who has a consulting business would agree this is necessary verbiage, as time is money, and we can’t afford to be giving away blocks of time. So, although we must be protective of our time, we also must consider these questions: At what cost? Will it burn the bridge? Will an act of penalization ruin the relationship?

Flexibility can be administered on a case-by-case basis, making it flexible in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be literally built into the business bylaw. You have the discretion, based on the relationship, to find the loophole if that’s what you prefer. In this way, flexibility isn’t a business model, it’s a mind- set. Yes, we all have policies, but I decided a long time ago to hold my clients to the spirit of the law instead of the letter of it. My client was completely grateful, by the way, and I know that my flexibility also told her that I was quite reasonable to work with, and that quality is never hurtful to a relationship.

When we are flexible with others—whether it is with staff, vendors, or clients—we send several messages of kindness at once. Through our flexible actions we show we are patient, humble, and aware that we are susceptible to the same kinds of interruptions. We tell others we are compassionate and empathetic of the situation. Our flexible reaction to a conundrum is the cumulative effect of all these kindness characteristics put together.

Flexibility and Customers

We are all concerned about sustainability, but business owners are also heavily focused on the customer experience. What they need, when they shop, how they make purchasing decisions, and so much more, need to be accounted for when determining if we are providing good customer service. Researching and assessing these and other factors is nothing other than flexibility and adaptability in action.

“We owe it to our consumer to offer her various options for how she wants to shop; we shouldn’t impose rules on her,” Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter, told Fast Company. And she should know, as her focus on flexibility earned her high-end online boutique $80 million in sales in one month alone. She engages in the same 365-day returns policy and free two-way shipping that Zappos, the online shoe retailer, is famous for.

Headlines abound about Zappos’s extremely flexible return policy, but the skeptics have been quieted since the store reported the more goods customers return, the better it is for business. “Our best customers have the highest return rates,” Craig Adkins, VP of services and operations told Fast Company, “but they are also the ones that spend the most money with us and are our most profitable customers.” Zappos’s model is not to give its purchasers the cheapest foot- wear out there, but to give them the best service (a 365-day returns policy and free two-way shipping).

Being flexible means learning directly from the customer what needs changing or improving, which is why flexibility enforced by front-end employees is something worth considering. A well-known story about The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a prime example of the power of flexibility being in the hands of those who deal with clients the most.

The president of The Ritz-Carlton, Horst Schulze, instinctively knew that people with complaints or requests do not want to hear “I will ask management,” so he created a policy that gave frontline employees autonomous decision-making power over their interactions with customers. By doing so, Schulze infused a true feeling of luxury, efficiency, and brand recognition, as customers’ problems were solved more immediately and personally. The flexibility of allowing staff to be flexible to clients, without adhering to rules that have been set as company guidelines and policies, makes customers feel heard and believe they are a part of an actual relationship, instead of being held hostage to corporate policy. Ask members of your staff what kinds of situations they encounter that go unsolved, and find out what tools would help them. Bending the rules can make a big difference, because doing so makes customers feel like they matter.

I recently experienced a similar situation. I was speaking in Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday. It wasn’t until midnight Friday that I checked into the hotel, as I had travelled in the morning by plane and went straight to the conference. It had been at least a 14-hour day with another long day ahead of me, so I couldn’t wait to hit the hay. At the reservations desk, the receptionist told me that the computer indicated I was only staying Saturday night and there was no space available for me. The online booking service I used apparently had a glitch, and I was now without a place to sleep. There was nothing she could do, the clerk told me, as the hotel was completely booked. By 2 a.m., I had called 15 hotels, asking if they had a room for me. Some did, but wouldn’t lower their astronomical rates. I was near tears and exhausted by this point. Finally, the Marriott Renaissance said they would be able to offer the rate of $169. My Uber driver drove me over to the hotel, and I was greeted by a friendly clerk. “Looks like you had a hard night,” she said to me empathetically. I mustered a slight smile. “You know what I am going to do? I am going to give you the room for $129.”

Whether or not she went against corporate policy, this woman felt confident enough in her ability to be flexible with the hotel’s rates. What her compassion and flexibility did was pay the hotel dividends that surprised even me. The next morning, I was as well rested as I could possibly be, and extremely grateful for the humanity shown to me, so I called the front desk to see if they would extend the rate for two more nights. I wasn’t put on hold, but told right on the spot that yes, the rate can be extended. I cancelled my original booking at the other hotel that had kicked me out the night before. I wound up eating all my meals at the Marriott and brought friends and colleagues back to the hotel. We spent money there, and since I was a conference organizer, I could guarantee that I would be back and refer the chain in the future. In fact, this one particular Marriott Renaissance in Las Vegas happens to be stunning, and I look forward to going back for personal enjoyment.

To see how important flexibility is, consider where it is lacking: the airline industry. Rule after rule, caveat after caveat, fee after fee, people are extremely dissatisfied with their travel experiences. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, air travel complaints increased by 30 percent in 2015 alone—a 15-year high! If you want to see how an industry’s strict rules and regulations make people feel, check out the departures area of your local airport. It is not usually a very happy place. The lack of flexibility and increased penalties that run rampant today is why I am a loyal customer of Southwest. As a preferred business traveler, when I came down with a nasty case of bronchitis and couldn’t fly, I called up and requested a new flight. I was able to do so without paying the $140 penalty. So, because I know I can change my itinerary without going broke, I always fly Southwest. I believe them to be a flexible airline, and in business when meetings run long or are cancelled, having the flex option is a lifesaver.

A simple request I had made to a Chinese restaurant had been denied, and I haven’t set foot in there since. For lunch- time at my monthly live publicity course, I needed a restaurant venue that would accommodate my attendees. Of course, each person would require separate checks and we would need to be served and back to work within an hour. These two requests proved to be too much for the restaurant to handle, and I was left in desperate search for a new spot.

I called Applebees, which not only agreed to the opportunity, but delivered the menus in advance to the hotel and al- lowed us to call in our orders ahead of time. When we arrived at the restaurant, the food and separate checks were ready. Applebees made hundreds of dollars that day, and I continued to hold my lunches there for months.

You don’t have to be like the airlines. Simply keeping questions such as: “What do my customers need?” “What will make this experience pleasant for them?,” Can I accommodate their special request?” and “Does this warrant a late fee or a refund?” at the forefront of your interactions is imperative, especially in today’s social media age when you’re just one tweet away from a massive boycott. Encourage your employees to ask the same questions, and give them the leverage to make their own determinations about situations that arise.

Different services require different levels and types of ser- vice flexibility. Only you know how much flexibility your business can afford. The bottom line is to allow yourself to be guided by the relationships you have with your staff, vendors, and customers. Doing so will help you utilize flexibility in ways that can benefit all parties.