I saw a sign the other day in a local cafe that announced that they now offer free wi-fi. Great news, I thought, that's really handy. The nicely handwritten chalkboard sign went on to tell me in no uncertain terms all the rules, regulations and restrictions that they'd impose on any users. They included: It was free only for the first hour and 'free' was from the time I first logged on, and if I logged off at any time in that hour, my hour was over and I'd have to pay; I must not visit inappropriate sites; my hour was non transferrable and couldn't be used by anyone else, and if I talked to someone next to me while I was 'surfing' I would find myself in detention after school. I made that last one up, but that's how it all felt - incredibly negative, authoritarian and all very 'school ma'am like.'
My immediate reaction was 'thanks for nothing - stuff your wi-fi'. A great new benefit had just been turned into something that seemed so 'joyless'. I'm sure that's not what was intended, but it's certainly what came across. I couldn't understand why the sign didn't sell all the 'benefits' of wi-fi and tell me all the things that I could do! Did I really need to be 'lectured at' before I've even enquired about using it?
I know there are rules, and these have to be adhered to, but timing and wording can be so important. Nobody wants to see somebody viewing porn sites in the middle of a cafe (well that's not strictly true, but you get my drift) so a word or two that advises against it before I log on is perhaps a little more appropriate. For example 'this is a family area, so please don't risk upsetting others by viewing sites that could offend them'.
My point is this. The messages we send to our customers (and potential customers) says a lot about our business. I think it also says a lot about what we think of them too.
There's a business not far from me with a sign that says 'DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT PARKING HERE.' How welcoming is that to visitors and customers? I hate that sign, and take great pleasure in parking there if I can just to wind them up. Of course it's petty, but I know I'm not the only one who does this.
While I'm on the subject of customer carparks, those with reserved signs in the spaces next to reception for 'Directors and Senior Managers only' are a classic example of who the company really sees as being important. A sign that says 'Reserved For Visitors' is good, but a sign by a space with your own name on it as you drive in is particularly impressive! (It happened to me once, and it gave me a 'warm glow' all over!). These signs set the tone. They undoubtedly make you feel valued and show that somebody actually cares. It also says that they're expecting you!
Some signs show that you're simply not trusted as a customer. One hotel I stayed in had a sign that informed me unequivocally in large writing that if I took the dressing gown in my room they would automatically charge me an extra twenty five pounds on my bill! I'd never even considered taking it and didn't like the implication that I was a thief (for 'taking', read 'stealing'). Although to be fair, a thought did then enter my head - twenty five pounds for a high quality dressing gown? That's not a bad deal, so I pinched it! (That's a joke by the way!)
Signs can help provide a positive experience. Malmaison Hotels for example use signs to reinforce their 'personality'. They have some wonderful little touches. Instead of 'Do Not Disturb' signs for your door, they have 'I want to be alone', the heated towel rails say 'Keep off The Rails - be careful, they're extremely hot'. I ordered chips with my meal last time I was there, and the bowl they came in had 'for your fries only' on it. It's cheesy, but fun. It makes customers smile, and appears to treat them as human beings, and dare I say it, as 'adults' with a sense of humour? All this is backed up with courteous, friendly and caring staff by the way. Signs alone, of course, do nothing.
What do your 'signs' say about how you view your customers? Do they demonstrate that you trust, respect and value them, or do they imply you think they're liars, thieves and cheats? Do they help, advise and encourage your customers or do they treat them with contempt? Do they get your 'personality' (and that of your people) across, or are they soulless, authoritarian and officious?
On holiday in France a couple of years ago, I came across a sign outside one of the hundreds of wine shops in the little village of St. Emilion which made me smile. St. Emilion probably has more wine shops per head than anywhere else in the world, so it's difficult to differentiate one from the other. As we wandered confused through the medieval streets we saw a sign that said on a chalkboard in English 'The wine shop on the opposite side of the street is not as nice as mine'! Did we go in? Of course we did!
The best signs are often 'personalised', and show that somebody has thought about what they've written. Behind the counter of a parts distributor I know there's a chalk board with a daily joke, piece of trivia or quiz question for their customers (many of which are submitted by customers, who get an acknowledgement with 'their name in lights'!). It's personable, friendly and creates conversations and dialogue.
Signs are not just things on the wall by the way. Your business is sending signs out all the time, many of which are subliminal. It's often the little ones that work best. For example, do you have a standard letter that gets sent out from your accounts department that states 'According to our records your payment is now 30 days overdue'? I'm sure you do. There's nothing wrong with that whatsoever. However, do you also have one that says 'According to our records you paid us within 30 days, and can we just say 'thank you' for that?'
A client of mine here in Sheffield who exports cutlery all over the world has learnt how to say 'Thanks for you order' in over 60 different languages, and drops a little note inside the packaging of all their despatched goods with the appropriate 'Thank You' hand written on it. Message to the customer? We value you, and your order.
It's simple really. If you really do care for your customers, and you want to demonstrate that, please don't 'Sign Up' to things that say (or even imply) the opposite. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Please Note: For 'signs', also read postings, messages, emails, letters and even 'tweets'!! (Hey, this is radical stuff!)