Things you say without realizing it

I’m not sure that a welcome mat in front of a business ever made anyone feel truly welcome, or a notation on a receipt saying that it has been someone’s pleasure to serve you made up for the indifferent treatment delivered by the server who dropped it on the table.

Businesses put a lot of effort (and money) into trying to send messages to their customers. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that many of the things they do end up sending other messages. Those unintended messages may be inadvertent, but they’re also pretty dangerous.

“For some reason, banks seem to be particularly adept at delivering the wrong messages.”

For some reason, banks seem to be particularly adept at delivering the wrong messages. Recently, I went through the semiannual ritual of gathering up loose change, carefully counting it, and putting it into rolls. I brought it to the local branch to exchange it for paper. As I slid the rolls across the faux marble countertop, the teller’s expression became strikingly serious, and she cautioned, “You know, if any of those rolls are short, we’ll have to deduct the amount from your checking account.”

Okay, let’s look at what that simple statement said to me. We’ll look past the fact that she’s not confident that I’m bright enough to count to 50. And I won’t even mention her lack of appreciation for my having taken the time to count out and roll the whopping $14 worth of change, rather than emptying a coffee can on her counter.

What she told me is that the bank didn’t trust me, plain and simple. She told me that, in her eyes, I was very likely a thief who was trying to steal a penny or a couple nickels from her employer. Never mind that I’ve entrusted significantly larger sums of money to that employer.

I can hear a banker protesting, “You don’t understand. We lose money every year to people who miscount change …” I get that. I really do.

But what if instead of scolding me and suggesting that I may have coolly pocketed an extra penny or two, the teller had simply and cheerfully accepted those paper rolls? Then, if something came up short, she could call me, smile, and say, “We noticed that your roll of dimes was short one. I hope you don’t mind, but we’ll have to debit your checking account.” Instead of suggesting that every customer who presented rolled coin was either stupid or a thief, why not focus on the small minority of customers who actually made mistakes?

Those little hand-lettered signs we see in so many businesses are another example. Take a hamburger joint I used to frequent with some regularity. They make a great cheeseburger, but every time I approach the carry-out window to buy one, I’m confronted with an array of handwritten missives that interfere with my appetite and make me wonder whether the place really wants my business.

“We don’t accept expired coupons, so check them BEFORE you come in!!!” read one. “EVERYTHING includes catsup, mustard, onion, mayo and tomato, so if you order EVERYTHING, THAT’S what your [sic] going to get!!!” said another.

Clearly, there was an employee who grew weary of being confronted with expired coupons and questioned as to why onions appeared on someone’s cheeseburger. Out of sheer frustration, she crafted these signs, putting words in ALL CAPS and using multiple exclamation points so we’d know she was really serious!!!

Did she have legitimate gripes? Perhaps. But those signs set the tone for the service. At best, it was bored and indifferent. At worst, it was obvious that by placing orders, customers were ruining the employee’s day. The last time I stopped by at lunchtime, the counter was dead, and I’m certain that the business owner was struggling to understand why fewer customers were ordering those tasty cheeseburgers.

On more occasions than I’d like to remember, I’ve watched customer service employees dress down customers who foolishly presented expired coupons. “We can’t take that – it expired yesterday!” they’ll loudly pronounce, creating embarrassment for the customer.

Sure, accepting a recently expired coupon might cost the business a few cents, but what will it pay off in terms of goodwill? More important, what will that refusal cost the business in terms of lost future trade? The next time that customer has to go out to eat – or  shop, or purchase whatever service they sell – he or she will remember that employee’s tone of voice and travel down the street to a friendlier competitor.

Compare that to the server at a restaurant where my family recently enjoyed dinner. We forgot to bring a coupon that the restaurant had emailed. We mentioned that to the server, and she checked with the manager, who said it wasn’t a problem. The server applied the discount, and received a healthy tip as a thank-you. The manager knows we’ll be back, too.

Will some people try to cheat you by using an expired coupon? Of course, but I’ll wager that they represent a comparatively tiny portion of your trade. You’ll hurt your business far more by treating the honest but calendar-challenged folks (or those whose eyes can’t fathom your six-point disclaimer type) badly.

The last example I’ll mention is one of the most common: the on-hold recording that repeatedly tells me how important my call is. About the twelfth time I’ve heard it, I start to have my doubts. If my call was that important, wouldn’t you have answered it by now?

Some might take me to task for the examples I’ve cited, calling them little things that really don’t matter. But the reality is that they matter very much. The signs on your counter, the ironies in your on-hold messages, the way you handle issues such as expired coupons – all of them send unintended messages to your current and prospective customers. In the worst case, they may even undo everything you try to accomplish by investing in marketing and advertising.

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