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Does inflexibility pay in business?

Di Antonio Caneva, 30 Aprile 2004

Friday night I rented an interesting video from Blockbuster, due to be returned on the next Sunday, and was anticipating the pleasure of watching it. Saturday I slipped the cassette into the player, but the picture was distorted and wavy. “Surely the heads are dirty,” I thought with some annoyance, and proceeded to run the cleaning tape. Nothing happened: the image was still fuzzy. So I dampened the cassette pads with the right solvent, but once again there was no result. I gave up. On Monday I went to the shop to return the video and ask for a replacement. The assistant checked it, and was getting ready to change it with another copy when – alas! – he realised it was Monday. “You were supposed to return the video on Sunday, so you will have to pay an extra day of rental”. “Should I pay extra rental time for a video that did not work and forced me to change my weekend plans after I had paid for it in advance?” “That’s right. It’s true it did not work – added the manager, who joined in the discussion, – but you have returned it one day too late, so we are going to replace it, but you will have to pay for the delay”. At that point I was angry: they had caused an inconvenience, and instead of apologising they were only concerned about recovering a day of rental.
Such episodes – as sometimes happen – can prompt some useful reflections. Blockbuster’s assistant was not so much concerned about satisfying a customer, as he was about solving his own problem. To comply with the instructions he had likely been given, he was requested to account for every single day of rental, whether the cassette was legible or not.
Something of the same sort had happened to me in Abano, where I had stayed at a pleasurable hotel with a nice swimming pool, and the Sunday when I was due to leave I had asked to keep my room until the early afternoon. The reception manager turned down my request, explaining: “You see, the owners demand that checkout time is not after eleven in the morning, or else they would have to pay for the maids to clean the rooms later”. The hotel was half empty, so this, too, was misplaced strictness in abiding by instructions. The same hotel keeps on sending me Christmas and Easter cards, plus various proposals during the year: why not save on the mailings (profitless in this case) and rather allow me to enjoy their hospitality?
The staff, however, is often not to be blamed. They have to cope with too rigid a sense of hierarchical subordination, and fear the repercussions of their every action. When this happens, you cannot but expect an attitude of rigidity, which – in the service business – is certainly not the best way to grow.

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