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What Is the Cover of Your Book?

This is a story about my experience when my son was a young child.

Okay, so I know I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to customer service and cleanliness in businesses. Whenever I’m out and about, going through my daily life, I have a more critical eye than most consumers because quality improvement is what I “do”.

Many times I have wanted to hand my card to a manager or business owner and say, “Call me. You really need me!” based on what I saw or experienced.

I may not give them my card, but I do take the time – especially if it is my desire to continue to be their customer – to let them know they can do better. Such was the case the other day while spending time with my son.

I had taken my son to one of his favorite indoor playground facilities. You know the type; it looks like a giant hamster habitrail-type thing, complete with several levels of slides, rope climbs and swinging monkey bars, etc. Anyway, as we pull up to the place I noticed a great deal of garbage strewn about one of the entrances. This particular location is in a strip mall, in what looks like it should have been a grocery store, so there are two entrances, one on either side of a long hallway, allegedly where shopping carts might have been stored. I decide to avoid the one that looked like the parking lot of a university stadium after a football tailgate and entered through the cleaner entrance.

Being a “good customer,” while I’m paying the entrance fee, I let an employee know of the condition of one of the entrances. “I may be the first or the fiftieth to let you know, but…” and I proceed to describe the condition of the entrance. As happens far too often when I do my customer public service reports, I got the “Why are you telling me this?” look. Then I guess she thought of a slightly better response and she proceeded to tell me that they had been very busy and their first priority was to serve the customers inside of the facility.

Okay, so someone had obviously told her the ubiquitous mantra that many a company chants, but less follow through on – the one about “always serving the customer”. I resisted the urge to explain to her that serving the customer starts with the first impression. Garbage being the first thing I see when I bring my child into your establishment doesn’t serve my need to patronize a clean facility.

My son and I spent just under an hour at the facility and as we were leaving I saw and heard the same employee point me out to what appeared to be a manager. “Yeah, she’s the one who said there was trash in the parking lot.” And as I walked out of the building, I saw that nothing had changed. What looked to be a tattered and half-filled white kitchen trash bag, its missing contents scattered about a 12 square foot space, was still there. Untouched.

I can only imagine what happened. Since the employee kept saying “parking lot” when I said entrance, she and the other person to whom she relayed my message, may have assumed it “was not their responsibility,” perhaps never even venturing outside.

I know enough about retail space rental agreements – I once interned with a real estate development company and as a Head Start Director we rented several of our 12 centers – to know that the business usually rents the space and as part of that rental fee, the landlord is often responsible for certain common areas like the parking lot. So if the “parking lot” or even the sidewalks leading up to the entrances need attending to, that is under the purview of the landlord, not the tenant.

Okay, that may be the rental agreement, but your customers don’t care about the rental agreement. Here’s what they are thinking. “If you don’t care enough about your outside, in this case, the cleanliness of such, how concerned are you with the inside?” It’s like with a restaurant’s bathroom. If I go in and find it’s disgusting, my next assumption is that your kitchen is disgusting.

Right or wrong, consumers will take one aspect of your business and assume direct correlations about another part of your business. They are going to assume that poor choices in one area will mean poor choices in another.

Let’s look at this example more closely. As a parent, I want to take my child to a place that is fun, clean and safe. If this facility gets the reputation for being dirty, how many parents are going to want to take their children to it? When you patronize a place, especially if you bring your children, you want to be able to make certain assumptions and be right in those assumptions.

Parents want to assume that owners clean the facility on a regular basis, because lord knows kids bring in germs with them and they are touching every inch of that play structure. Parents want to assume that you clean your kitchen within health regulation standards and that you do not serve food that has been mishandled or has expired because your food safety procedures are lax. Parents want to assume that you check your equipment on a regular basis to ensure there are no loose screws, weak joints or holes in the safety netting that surrounds the structure.

Guess what? You may in fact do all of these things. You may have the best safety and cleanliness procedures in place and are enforcing them. But no one would know it by what your exterior looks like. Just like clothes matter to a professional’s reputation, so too does the outside matter to a business.

So the lesson learned is this….everything matters! If you care about your business or your career, know that what you think is benign and doesn’t really matter may be the lynchpin for future decision making for your customers. Contrary to what they say about not judging a book by its cover, your customers will judge you.

The impression you convey with your exterior/interior, your employees, your marketing, whatever is the first impression presented to your customers and your potential customers will be judged; and from that judgment, a decision to start, continue, or end their relationship with you will be made.

So in other words…keep your parking lot clean!

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