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Jerry Osteryoung: Negative signs send wrong message

Jerry Osteryoung
Jerry Osteryoung

Signs are everywhere, and they are vital to every business. They communicate so much to your customers about your business. They convey important information to customers, but you must be careful when crafting messages.

Negative signs send the wrong message. They tell the customer they are wrong. Recently I was in a second-hand furniture store, which had multiple signs over the counter that read, “WE CANNOT MAKE DELIVERIES. PLEASE DO NOT ASK.”

There are several ways this message can be interpreted by customers, and none are good.

First, it not only tells the client the store does not make deliveries, it also tells the client that the staff is too busy to answer questions about this. Staff members are going to say that they get tired of answering the same question repeatedly. Even so, relationships between customers and employees are vitally important, and signs like this often deter these interactions.

The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain purposely does not post signs in its hallways so that the customer is forced to interact with employees. Hotel officials understand the importance of the interaction between customers and staff.

Another problem with that sign is the implication that if the customer asks a question about it, it will not be answered. Again, this shuts down communication between the customer and the staff and deters those all-important interactions.

Rather than have a negative sign like this in your business, it is better to speak directly with the customer and pleasantly answer their questions no matter how many times you have to give the same message.

If you must have a negative message on a sign, turn it into something positive. For example, “No cell phones in office!” is something I often see. Why not say: “If you have to talk on your phone, please go outside for your call. Thank you.”

Restaurants often post signs with the message: No shirt, no shoes, no service. It's certainly understandable why restaurants do not want patrons without shirts and shoes.

That said, a kinder alternative – “We would appreciate it if all customers wore shirts and shoes. Thank you.” – would be a better approach.

Now go out and look at every sign in your business and see how many you can eliminate. If they convey negative messages, double your efforts to rid yourself of them.

Jerry Osteryoung, a business consultant and Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University, can be reached at