Last week, I had lunch in a diner. As I was paying, I noticed a sign hanging behind the counter that said, “Don’t worry. Our staff is accustomed to dumb questions.”

Ha, ha. It’s not funny.

You’ve seen these signs before, right? They’re hanging in small businesses everywhere. They say things like, “Notice: Prices subject to change according to customer’s attitude” or “The customer is sometimes right” or “Sarcasm is just one more service we offer!”

Over the years, I’ve walked into small merchant shops, sat in reception areas and even met with people in conference rooms where signs like, “Complaint Department: Take a number” showed a picture of a ticket with a number hanging off the pin of a hand grenade or other similar signs like, “Yesterday was the deadline for all complaints” and “Complaints will be heard on the second Tuesday of next week.”

Oh, and let’s not forget this gem that I saw hanging prominently in a hardware store near my home that said (and I am not kidding):

“Suppose we refund your money, send you another one for free, close the store and have the manager shot. Would THAT be satisfactory?”

What are these small business owners thinking?

Have they lost their minds?

What kind of message do they think they’re sending?

This is not funny. This is not cute or witty or droll. It’s just an obvious swipe…at me, the customer! They’re basically calling me a jerk. Me. The customer!

These small business owners are knuckleheads. They’re being short-sighted and dumb. Customers don’t want to see this. We don’t think it’s funny. We don’t think it’s cute.

We are human beings. Which means that we are tired. We are stressed. We are worried, tense and insecure. We have a lot of things on our minds, a lot of problems to deal with, a lot of anxieties to tend to. So when we come into your place of business, we want to be treated…nicely. For a change. We want to ask a question and get a polite, fast answer. We want to hear positive words like “yes” and “of course” and “we can.” We want to feel like we’re appreciated and we want to be shown just a little common decency in a world that’s full of mostly indecencies.

We want a good experience when we walk into your business and a solution to our problem, be it hunger, a clogged drain or new kitty litter.

Who knows, for some of us it may be the only one of the day.

The last thing we desire is to feel unwanted. Or like a nuisance. We don’t want to feel inhibited to ask “dumb” questions – because maybe to us, they’re not so dumb. We don’t want to feel defensive if we have a complaint or a problem. We just want the things that we buy from you to do what they’ve promised to do. And if for some reason they don’t, we’d like a reasonable, fair, sympathetic discussion that leads to a mutually agreeable solution to the problem. We don’t want to look at a sign that suggests that a hand grenade will explode in our face if, God forbid, we have a question or concern.

Get it?

So if you have these stupid, insensitive, dopey signs hanging in your place of business, take them down and replace them with positive, considerate, happy, upbeat and cheerful signs that say things like, “We (heart) our customers” and “We appreciate your business.” Yes, it may sound trite, campy and clichéd. But there’s still a place in this world for positive, nice comments that show gratitude. As a customer, I want you to feel grateful for my business. As a business owner, we should all feel that way about our customers. And those idiotic signs are not helping.

Join writer and small business owner Gene Marks each Wednesday on the Small Biz Ahead podcast. You can submit a question for Gene to answer on the podcast.

9 Responses to “The Biggest Customer Service Mistake You Can Make As a Small Business Owner”

  1. Great advise and info – we are a smaller corporation that offers a specialty, feel good products! This article speaks volumes – our business has grown by word of mouth over the years and it’s due to our ability to engage and nurture our customers – other contributions of design innovations and creativity and efficiency have made us successful! BUT – it’s all about taking care of your existing customers so they keep coming back for more! Without a customer – you don’t have a business or won’t for long!

  2. Great article! As a reminder to our team each and every day. We have a tag line …. Monteith Insurance ” Where there’s no charge for awesomeness!” My clients love it and it keeps me on my toes.

  3. (reposting since the earlier one came up blank)
    Bad tempered signs are a bad idea, I agree. It doesn’t sound like you’ve done a low level customer-facing job recently, though. Clerks, waiters, delivery people, and so on have to eat a lot of crap, daily, from patrons who don’t treat them as equals (to put it mildly). Employers who value their people want to make it clear that while they have to humor customers like that, they (the employer) sides with their people.

    There are other ways to say it, and it doesn’t need to be done in the customers’ sight, but if that’s why they’re doing it, their hearts are in the right place.

  4. We are an extremely small agency in a medium sized town with lots of competition. The only thing we have that the other guys don’t have is service. We can’t afford not to have good service. These kinds of signs would literally kill us. Some of the bigger guys might get away with something like that, but for us it’s a deal killer.

  5. If a business owner is hanging a sign like the ones described in this article they may want to consider if working with the public is really the best option for them. The problem here is not the customer…it is the culture that the business owner has created. Company culture is infectious…in a good way or in a bad way. Employees will work in line with what ever attitude management conveys. Speaking about your customers in a negative way says to the employee, “you don’t have to be respectful to the folks that feed us”. You might as well hang up a “going out of business” sign.

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