In a recent experience with a supplier, I had to contact them to try to get some parts expedited. There was a change in my schedule which forced me to try and get a partial shipment early. The company salesperson told me that he would talk to his manager and see what he could do. After an hour, he emailed me and said that he was unable to send me anything because there were special "tests" that needed to be done. He ended his email with "Sorry, there's nothing I can do. Have a nice day". Frustrated, I negotiated with him and his manager, and found that they were able to ship not a partial order, but the entire order, four days ahead of schedule. It became clear to me that there was no "special tests" at all, and that the sales guy was simply repeating what he was told by management, assuming that all would be well.
"Towing the company line" means pulling for your employer, regardless of the situation or logic. The problem with line-towing is that you lack the empathy for your customer, that is needed to provide great, real customer service.
Customers look to companies to provide a product or a service, in exchange for money. I pay you a dollar, you give me a burrito, plain and simple. As long as there are no wild changes or modifications to the normal routine, it all goes like clockwork.
But the world is not a perfect place.
Schedules change. Materials are late. Companies catch on fire, and delivery trucks stall on highways. Things happen in life that require companies to be flexible, in support of the customer. After all, you can't force the world to follow you're timeline, and you are sitting on the customer's check. But the specific need of the customer is not just your product or your service - customers need your support and your empathy. For every dollar that a customer spends on you, they are putting their trust in you, that you will look out for their well-being in the long run. When I gave you that dollar for that burrito, I trusted you that my burrito would taste good and be [relatively] healthy for me. If my burrito was cold and bland, then I would not be satisfied. If my burrito made me sick, I would also not be satisfied. At this point, I now look to you for your support and your empathy.
What will you do for me, now that I've given you my dollar?
Consider empathy. First of all, can you put yourself in my shoes, and understand what I'm dealing with? Do you even care what happens to me after I give you my money? If you were feeling what I am feeling, how would you react? Having the [human] ability to empathize with your customer enables you to see what is important to them, and also opens your eyes to the options available to you which may help the situation. Empathy would tell you that maybe you should ask what's wrong with my burrito, or why I am dissatisfied with it. Maybe you should talk with me about what the issues are, so we can come to a mutual agreement about what needs fixing. Reaching out to your customer is the first step in providing the customer service that creates a positive impression.
Now think about support. What can you do to support MY needs as a customer? Can you offer me another burrito? Are you willing to give up a dollar, in order to solve a problem, and potentially create a life-long repeat customer in the process? Are you willing to give me a refund, along the same line? Heck, maybe you want to offer to drive me to the ER because I'm ready to pass out? Whatever the case, being willing to offer your support to the customer sends a message that says "I really want to help you to achieve your goals - how can we do that?"
In my experience with the sales guy, I think he could have handled it a different way.
First, I would want to learn what the customer's needs were (when I absolutely needed parts, how many parts could I get by with, which parts were most important to me). Next, I would discuss with the customer what we thought the options were - can the company drop parts off, can the company just ship whatever was available, or could the sales guy connect me with his manager directly? If the sales guy towed MY line instead of his employers, he would probably gain enough of my trust that I might work with him to make some concessions. But because he sided with the company by telling me "Sorry there's nothing I can do", he sent a message saying "It's you, versus me and my employer".
Not a great message to send to customers.
For those of you who deal with customers, which is really all of us if you think about it, consider how you treat people when there is a change or an issue. Do you just blow people off with a canned response, or do you take the time to understand your customer’s needs? By taking your customer’s needs personally, you inject empathy and support into your response, making everybody happy. Think about how you can support others, and what they are feeling when things go bad…
… because nobody wants to deal with a bad burrito, even if it was only a buck…