Staff intranet

The customer and the computer

A customer comes into the coffee shop. It’s a weekend and there’s a sign on the wall asking customers not to use computers. He doesn’t read the sign: most people just don’t spend their time reading signs on walls. Some won’t even read one that’s right in front of them on the table – especially if they’re just there for a coffee. They know they can get that, so they just order a coffee without reading anything.

The customer opens up his computer. One of the staff, Sabine, sees him and casually wanders over. “Hello! I’m very sorry, but we ask customers not to use computers on the weekend” she says, looking genuinely apologetic. At that point, she knows that most customers will just say “Oh ok, sorry, I didn’t know” and comply with the request. Some might do so grudgingly, because if they had have known they couldn’t use their computer they might not have come in the first place. Sabine waits to see the reaction, ready to offer to reimburse the coffee he’s just paid for if he doesn’t want to stay. This customer is more difficult than average. He says he doesn’t see what the problem is. “Actually it’s just that we don’t have enough space”, says Sabine, maintaining her apologetic manner. The customer persists, pointing out the empty tables around the room. “Yes, you’re right”, Sabine replies, “there’s space right now but it changes all the time, and often we do have to turn people away if we allow computers. So we just have to have some sort of rule about it.” It’s like she’s just having a chat rather laying down the law. But this is one of the rare customers who just won’t let it go. He’s grumpy. He says we shouldn’t get hung up about it, that he can pack up his computer if other customers come but in the meantime he should be able to use it. He says he’s ordering a drink anyway so what’s the difference! And he makes up a few other reasons as to why our policy is incomprehensible. To Sabine, he’s not the nicest of customers, but she’s not perturbed. She’s knows there’s no point arguing and that no-one’s going to physically force anyone to do anything. And maybe he’s got a point? Why should we expect that all customers automatically understand why we have these sort of rules? She listens, but avoids arguing back. “Well, all we can do is ask. After that, it’s up to you.” she says with a conciliatory smile, leaving the customer to make their own decision. Sabine doesn’t know what the customer will do after that. Will he keep using his computer? Will he leave a bad review on Google? Who knows? She just knows that she did her best. She didn’t get frustrated and even had the impression that the customer softened a little when he saw she was listening. As it turned out, there were a couple of other people at the next table also listening. They heard the conversation and they made up their own minds about who was being reasonable and who wasn’t. One of them caught Sabine’s eye and gave her a friendly, sympathetic smile.

Should we put signs banning computers on tables?

You would think it would help but there are disadvantages too. 

The first thing many customers see when they sit down would be a rule telling them what they can’t do. It’s not very welcoming, no matter how it’s worded. It might help for a small percentage of difficult customers, but almost all will read the sign and might tend to be a little less friendly themselves as a result. 

Ironically, sometimes signs can even make things worse; we then have the tendency to say to a customer who doesn’t read it: “See, it’s written there!”, giving the impression that we think they’re silly for not seeing it. In the end, signs or no signs, the problem will never disappear and dealing with it will always be a part of our customer service.