Unfriendly Signs Are Bad For Business

Imagine you stroll into your local self-serve frozen yogurt shop and see this sign:

Image credit: Jeff Toister

Image credit: Jeff Toister

The business hung the sign because a few people would come into the shop, load up on samples, and then leave. This sign was the response.

But what does this sign really say?

It’s unfriendly. It discourages you from lingering. It almost feels threatening, as in “You’d better find a flavor you like or we’ll charge you!”

There’s a better way to handle this.

  • Do nothing. What’s really the cost of a few free samples?
  • Talk to people who abuse sampling on an individual basis.
  • Have employees give out sampling cups to encourage friendly interaction (and sales!).

I’ve previously written about unfriendly signs here and here. These were two places I haven't returned to. 

These signs usually point to a bigger problem. A lack of trust. Poor customer engagement. And lost business opportunities.

It’s a self-serve yogurt place, so the cashier usually stands behind the register waiting to ring up customers. There’s typically a lot of downtime in between. 

Why not encourage sampling?

The cashier could suggest a new flavor or recommend toppings. He could do a lot of things to engage with customers. This might actually justify the tip jar that otherwise inexplicably sits in front of the register.

Shep Hyken recently wrote about a similar experience on his blog. He made this excellent suggestion for business owners:

Don’t make a rule because just one or two customers (out of hundreds or even thousands) abuse your system. In other words, don’t penalize all of your honest customers for the sins of a few.

Signs that a service failure lies ahead

Businesses use signs for a variety of reasons. They’re used as advertising to entice customers to come on in. They offer guidance so people head in the right direction. They’re also posted to warn people about potential hazards.

I’ve written about signs a few times before. One post examined an unfriendly sign from a penny-pinching business that may have cost more money in lost customers. Another post had some fun with humorous signs posted in restrooms. I even wrote a post explaining why customers often don’t read signs.

Sometimes, signs warn customers that a service failure lies ahead. Here’s the signage I recently encountered outside a casual restaurant:


Would you want to eat here? 

The rules themselves aren’t unreasonable, but these signs suggest the restaurant focuses more on making sure guests are well-behaved than providing a great experience. 

Signs like this are often just the tip of the customer service iceberg. A closer look at this restaurant revealed other indicators that a service failure is likely to happen. Their rating on Yelp was 2.5 stars. Trip Advisor reviewers were a little more generous with a 3 average. They offered open air seating, so I was able to observe a server greeting a newly seated table. Her opening lines consisted of listing the items they were out of. No “Hello,” “How are you today?” or “Can I get you something to drink?” Just “Here’s what we don’t have.”

All of these signs encouraged me to find somewhere else to eat. 

Fixing service quality at this restaurant will take more than just fixing the signs up front, but signs are a part of a business’s image. It’s hard to imagine a place that offered great service would choose to project an image like this restaurant did with their signs.

Here are a few questions you might ask if you want to look at your own signs: 

  • What do your signs tell customers about your business?
  • Do your signs match the image you want to project? 
  • When rules are absolutely necessary, is there a friendlier way? 

Why customers don’t read signs

Anyone who has served customers face-to-face can attest to the fact that customers don’t read signs.

Take a look at this example from a deli. The sign above the bin clearly reads Recycle (in two languages!), yet many customers have ignored the sign and used it to throw away their trash.

So, why don’t customers read and follow simple signs like this one?

The root cause of this problem stems from employees and customers viewing the experience through different frames. As I noted in a recent post, customers often see things differently.

Going back to the deli, let’s start by looking at the employees’ perspective. The location of the recycling bin seems like a matter of common sense because their actions reinforce their knowledge of the bin's location:

  • They put out the recycling bin so they know where it is.
  • They put up the sign.
  • They put out the trash bin too (15 feet away, not pictured).
  • They empty the recycling bin and have to sort out the trash.
  • They direct customers to the recycling bin when asked.

Now, let’s look at the customers’ perspective. It only took a few minutes of observing customers to see what led people to put trash in the recycling bin.

I observed customers stand up, scoop up their trash, and quickly scan the area for a trash bin. The recycling bin was closest to the deli’s tables, so it was the first bin most customers saw.

The bin looked like a trash bin at first glance. It was gray and stood by itself, so customers naturally approached the bin thinking this was where trash goes. This thought was reinforced when they peered inside the bin and saw a mixture of trash and recycling.

Deli customers are in a slight hurry to leave once they finish their lunch. Being in a hurry can narrow our focus and lead to a phenomenon called inattentional blindness that causes normally obvious things to disappear from view. Hurried customers fixated on a solo gray bin filled with trash could easily overlook the recycling sign.

Customers can and will make mistakes like putting trash in the recycling bin. I even devoted the second chapter of Service Failure to the notion that the customer is not always technically correct. However, it’s our job as customer service professionals to make it easier for customers to be right.

Here’s what the deli could do to help their customers recycle:

  • Put the recycling bin and trash bin side-by-side so customers see both.
  • Use a blue bin for recycling to differentiate it from the trash bin.
  • Add the "chasing arrows" universal recycling symbol to the sign.

Customer service employees often find themselves getting annoyed, frustrated, or exasperated with customers who don’t read or follow signs. However, taking a step back to observe customer behavior can often reveal simple solutions that will yield better results.