Do you see the signs of trouble?

A recent visit to one of my healthcare providers gave me an excellent example of how bad customer service — even what happens before an employee opens their mouth — can undo the most carefully crafted business image.

Take a look at the photo and see if you can spot what I like to call the signs of trouble. (I’ve removed any brand identity from the photo so as not to embarrass the provider.) See them?

This is a new facility for this healthcare provider, and it’s brilliantly designed. I’ve not seen medical offices quite as nice as this facility. The interior décor is quite tasteful, with many deliberate touches and special finishes creating an atmosphere that’s both comfortable and professional. The signage is contemporary and welcoming.

Even the patient check-in was well-designed, with those big beautiful windows providing privacy and security without making patients feel like prisoners forced to discuss sensitive matters through metal portholes. And there … on the windows … are the signs of trouble. They’re the homemade notices printed out of the office computer and carelessly taped to those lovely windows. One informed us this was the check-in for one practice (but not the neighboring one), another referenced ineligibility for a certain Medicaid program, and the third was some sort of pronouncement in legalese.

You’ll also find signs like these in banks, retail stores, and restaurants (especially at take-out counters). They deliver a wide variety of missives someone felt were important enough to warrant signs. “We DO NOT take rolled coin” “Everything includes onions if you DON’T WANT onions DON’T order it with everything” “Extra sauce packets 25ȼ” You probably see dozens in a typical week.

There’s a lot to dislike about them, which is why I call them signs of trouble. In my experience, roughly 98 percent of these signs appear when a customer-facing employee gets tired of saying the same thing more than a couple times a day. Hey, I get it. You’ve been sitting at that desk for at least six hours and you’re tired and hungry. I can’t believe four people have asked you about copays today. Doesn’t everyone know the cashier handles that, not you? Morons.

This guy was the third customer this month who came in and yelled at you because there were stupid onions on his stupid burger and he didn’t tell you to leave them off. That old lady brought in 15 rolls of coins, and obviously doesn’t realize SOMEONE has to unroll and count them to make sure she isn’t cheating the bank out of a nickel or two. Idiots.

Signs of trouble are an instant signal that something’s wrong with your customer service. Most likely, some of your employees really dislike your customers, patients, visitors, whoever comes to your place of business. So instead of making those customers, patients, visitors, whoever feel comfortable and welcome, they become hostile. They go on the offensive, angrily scrawling a sign and posting it for all to see, heading off that stupid question they just know you’re going to ask. Fools.

Or it may be you’re really overworking them. Having to ask “has your insurance information changed?” 50 times a day would just knock me off my feet and send me to bed for a week. Think of the conversations you’ll avoid with that “You MUST TELL US if your insurance information has changed” sign you just made. And look, you used that pretty font.

What else don’t I like about these signs of trouble? One is their tendency to SAY THINGS in BIG letters, which is a more passive-aggressive version of shouting at someone. Read the signs aloud, adding emphasis where big letters are used, and you’ll instantly see what I mean. Most of these signs have a scolding tone.

They usually look crappy, too. Many are printed by hand. Others are designed on the office computer in complete ignorance of the most basic rules of typography. They’re typically poorly worded and are often confusing. In some cases (like the Medicard-related sign in the photo), they contain information that’s important only to a handful of customers, patients, visitors, whoever. And finally, they’re hung with no thought given to aesthetics. Just look at the signs in the photos. I have trouble drawing a straight line with a sharp pencil, but I know I could have done a better job of hanging them.

If you own a business or run some kind of organization, pay attention to these signs, because they’re a loud warning that something isn’t quite right. All that money you’re investing in facilities, branding, and marketing is being undone by some customer-facing employees. (If there is important information that genuinely needs to be conveyed through a sign, buy a professionally prepared sign that matches your décor and your corporate identity.)

And if you’re a customer, patient, visitor, whoever be wary when you see those signs of trouble, because they’ll prepare you for the way you’re about to be treated.