Have you ever had to say to a friend, “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it”? I remember a client who used that to describe some of the interactions their managers would have with front-line employees as an example of the need for a professional communications course I offered at the time. But aside from your partner or spouse or personal relations, it’s surprising how frequently we come across businesses that seem not to grasp the concept of simple politeness.
As an example, in our current age of government-mandated safety and sanitary measures, we’re bombarded by dictates from governors, mayors, and county boards of health levying requirements of citizens, and often enlisting (drafting, really) local businesses to enforce them. Pop into your local diner and try to grab lunch the way you used to if you want to prove me right: regardless of how a business owner wants to run his or her establishment, if they want to stay open, they’re going to have to enforce government guidelines. Likewise, regardless of what you think of this arrangement, it’s inescapable. Local (and national-chain) businesses are more or less doing the policing on behalf of the state. That’s often the way it is as rarely does, say, a representative from the state liquor and tobacco board post himself at the wine shop up the street checking IDs as patrons enter…that’s the job of the guy behind the counter when you check out.
On the other hand, there are plenty of business owners who go above-and-beyond local restrictions either to better protect their Customers, or at least to appear to do so (with all we’ve learned so far, we know that some degree of what we’ve subjected ourselves to over the past year has been so much theater, right?). I remember, for example, that long before our state or city started requiring masks to go anywhere or do anything, Costco had required any member entering to be covered as a corporate policy. But one thing about Costco and how they enforced their own policy: Even back then, when few people were wearing or even considering masks, and long before it became the Law of the Land, Costco was polite about it.*
And that’s what’s so interesting to see. As a CX guy, I take a different approach to how I view things, so perhaps I’m just being a little over-sensitive. But is anybody else put off when they approach a store and are greeted with a sign, usually printed right there in the store, oftentimes scrawled by hand, but unfailingly in all caps: “NO MASK, NO ENTRY”? I left off the series (usually start with at least three, but then there appears to be no upper-limit) of exclamation points, but you know the sign; we’ve all seen them. What’s even more strange is that I tend to see this shouting nature of blaring proclamations ubiquitously at small locally-owned businesses, more so than at large corporate chains. The mom-and-pop shop up the street seems even more prone to SCREAM orders to you via their signage than is the cold, heartless megachain in the strip mall.
When we go up to the mountains west of Denver, these signs are everywhere. The small town where we have our get-away is one of the most charming places you’ll ever see with a cute Main Street lined exclusively with locally-owned businesses (save for one Loaf’n’Jug down toward one end where you can fill up your gas). Little restaurants, kitschy crafts, high-country themed clothing, and the like. And every one of them, it seems, is decorated with some form of threat, really, that you’re not welcome if you’re not masked. Now, I understand, and it’s the rule up there, after all. My criticism isn’t that they’re making their Customers aware of the policy and the law.
But how about this? Try posting a sign that reads something more along the lines of: “Please wear a mask when you enter.” Or maybe, “As a courtesy to your fellow Customers, and to keep our beloved staff safe, we request you ‘mask-up’ before coming in.” Or even, if you want to get passive-aggressive about it: “Our local government requires us to ask you to wear a mask while in our store.”
There’s nothing less enforceable about a policy if you use polite language to announce it. It’s not like someone will say, “well, you only asked that I wear it, so I guess I don’t have to.” And if it comes to it and you have to confront someone who’s not in compliance, isn’t it easier to do so if you’ve already ‘asked,’ via your sign, politely?
And this isn’t even an appeal to our better nature in order to forge a more polite society. Isn’t it simply good business to lead with your best foot forward when interacting with your Customers? Why would you want the first impression they have of you to be some grouchy taskmaster bossing them around even as they are about to enter your establishment?
I blame this attitude generally on mid-level management. I have the feeling that at a lot of these stores, there are people who work for the local owners who enjoy power and get such a rush out of bossing their own employees around that it naturally extends to their Customers as well. “This is our policy,” they’ll proudly exclaim, getting more of a rush out of enforcing it than out of solving Customers’ problems. On the other hand, it may simply be an abdication of the requirement to serve your Customers in the first place. “Them’s the rules,” you may say…put up a sign and move on.
The funniest (in a sad way, of course) thing about this is that it costs nothing to be polite and Customer-centric in this instance. The same effort put into a cold, emotionless, all-caps DEMAND (and don’t forget the exclamation points!), could be put into a gentle reminder that advances your brand promise of meeting your Customers’ needs, being there for them, and treating them with respect.
It’s a little thing, but in CX, it’s almost all little things.
* As an aside, counter to how politely they seemed to approach the whole mask thing—which you’ll remember back then was even more of a volatile subject than it is today—Costco historically is otherwise an organization with a pretty authoritarian streak as it is. They post sentinels at their entries badgering you for your membership card and barring non-members from even coming in and browsing, which I always thought was a dumb move simply from a business perspective, let alone CX. While surely they want to restrict purchases only to members (and of course they require you to present your membership card in order to check out), why on earth would a company whose business model entails a fee to purchase goods within the store not want to entice everybody off the street to gaze at what they could otherwise get if they plunked down the membership fee to join? Alas, a point, I suppose, for another article. That said, it’s curious a company with such a hostile approach to potential Customers nevertheless handled their own mask mandate policy with such grace as they did.