When Asking Permission Over 50 Cents Costs Far More Than 50 Cents

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I recently ordered some specialty black-colored Texas license plates. We have a vehicle that's a very deep red with black accents, so the default white background Texas plates really jump out.

For about $50, we could get plates that look like this:

When the plates were ready, I got an email from the local county tax office saying that they were ready to pick up. That's the normal process anyway.

I replied to the email, asking if I could pay to have the plates mailed to the house.

Somewhat surprisingly, the answer was “yes.” That's a welcome accomodation for the Covid-19 era. I'm not afraid to leave the house (and when I do, I wear a mask to protect others), but I do try to avoid unnecessary trips. Or maybe I'm just lazy, LOL.

One reply from the person at the county office read:

Good afternoon Mark.

Since the fee is just 50 cents for this transaction, I emailed the supervisor a couple days ago asking if we could just not worry about the 50 cents and complete the transaction and mail the plates to you. I am currently awaiting an answer.

Sorry for the delay. I will let you know as soon as I know something.

50 cents?

For one, I wondered how the fee could be just 50 cents. Surely it costs more to package and mail the plates, including labor time. I would have gladly paid $10 or something for this convenience.

But I also noticed that he had to “email the supervisor” to get 50-cent waived.

What??

I'm glad that he did that. He did get approval.

But talk about a systemic problem. Again, why have a fee of just 50 cents? More importantly, if you don't trust your employees to make a judgment call over 50 cents, why are you employing them?

How much did the time and effort cost to get that fee waived? Clearly more than 50 cents.

It's shocking (but not surprising) when there is lack of common sense about things like that.

I also think about companies that will mail a refund check for something like $0.17. Or a doctor's office that will demand payment for $1.28. Again, collecting that $1.28 certainly costs more than $1.28.

Oh, and when the county did finally mail the plates, they discovered this process problem first:

Good morning Mark.

I'm really sorry for the delay on this. I thought someone else was going to assist me with it, but the plates were still in the drawer. I had someone process these on Wednesday and mail them out. You should hopefully have them by mid next week. Let me know if you do not have them within 2 weeks.

Have a nice day!

I wonder if they went back to fix the process so that doesn't happen again? Probably not. At least this is just about the furthest thing from a life-and-death issue as we see in healthcare. It's tragic when healthcare doesn't learn from its process problems… we are doomed to repeat them.

Do you see similar situations in your workplace? Do you see the same things happen when you're a customer?

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

4 Comments
  1. Kevin says

    A couple years ago I was at a Starbucks when their registers were down. I offered to pay $5 for a $3 coffee to ensure tax was easily covered, but they refused to take any orders until their register was up and running. I wasn’t the only one. Instead, they stood around for apparently a few hours, doing nothing except tell customers they couldn’t take their money.

  2. Chip says

    When I worked for a national Veterinary practice, I authorized any staff to immediately handle any fee/account dispute up to $35. The long term effect on client relations was more than offset by an occasional inappropriate refund.

  3. Mark Graban says

    LinkedIn discussion:

  4. Wesley Ykema says

    My boss and I have had a similar discussion regarding our company’s travel expense policy for tipping: the company will not reimburse tips over 18%. This first came to light because I tipped 18% on the after-tax total, and someone in the approval chain was doing math on pre-tax amounts – the discrepancy was under $1.00.
    We both agreed that a better policy would be one that acknowledges the cost of resolving small amounts. “The company will reimburse tips equal or less than 18% of the after-tax total. Imbalances of under $5.00 per expense report are at supervisor’s discretion” or something would be a vast improvement and probably save our organization noticeable money in the long run.

    Thankfully, receipts aren’t required for bills under $25, so if it’s just me eating lunch… I can usually just round my tips up and be fine!

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