January 15, 2008

Have you ever noticed that when you walk into most establishments, you are told what you can’t do instead of what you can do:

– No food or drink

– No cell phones

– No shirt, no service

– No American Express

(This last one was prominently displayed on four handwritten signs by the cashier at Kantor’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles)

I don’t know what this says about society, inattentive customers, or uptight small business owners. But it does say something about just how commonplace negative language has become.

This is the exact reason why I find it so refreshing whenever I stop to buy gas at a little station on the main street of our town. Three words greet me as I pull up:

Please Pump First

This simple instruction is totally unexpected in this day and age (not to mention record setting gas prices!). It’s a “one off,” as the Brits say, in a day and age when most gas stations are devoid of service and a customer never has to interact with another human being in order to pump and pay for gasoline. Efficient, faster, and absolutely no human interaction. Not so at my local station, where you get a smile and a hello when you go to pay after filling the tank.

Think about what this sign communicates: We trust you. We’re not afraid. C’mon in.

I asked the attendant if they typically have problems with people leaving before paying, and the attendant told me no, except occasionally when someone forgets they had not paid (likely because we’ve been programmed to always pay first).

It leads me to think about the core values of businesses, both big and small, that we routinely deal with. Do we actually know the core values and, more importantly, do we agree with them? In large corporations, we have become increasingly exposed to core values being displayed everywhere from the back employee badges to the annual shareholder report. But we’re not accustomed to knowing about or seeing the core values of small enterprises which retail businesses, service businesses, and medical practices.

Typically, the only visible display of core values is in those signs that tell us what NOT to do. For any retail business that depends on foot traffic, it’s like having a big STOP sign in your entrance (and that’s before the customer encounters any of your staff). For those businesses that operate by appointment, it’s like having a WARNING sign upon entry. This is a sad irony, because most businesses and practices I speak with want to grow their business and improve their customer’s experience.

So in the New Year, I have three questions for you to ask of your business:

– What are your core values?

– How are those values demonstrated to customers on a daily basis?

– What opportunities exist to use positive language with your customers? (your version of “Please Pump First”)

Happy New Year!


Shareef Mahdavi
President, SM2 Consulting

Download the full blog