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Watch Your “Sign” Language!

By Allwell Nwankwo

“NO EATING, NO SITTING.  This is not a Visa Office.  Management. Those were the menacing words that stared me  in the face as I stepped into this very busy, ramshackle eatery on Molade Okoya Thomas Street, Victoria Island, Lagos.

signpostIt appeared the operators of the eatery actually meant business and would not brook any attempt to turn their joint into a consular office! So who was trying to turn this bubbling, mamaput-quality food business located on a prime plot of land into an embassy? The culprit (or the benefactor?) was none other than the consular office of an African country on the adjacent plot of land.

The eatery (I didn’t see its name anywhere) was a neighbour to the consular office and obviously benefitted from the throng of Nigerians who usually got tired of standing all day to transact some visa business with the office.

We won’t concern ourselves with the quality of service at this particular consular office for it appeared the place was set up to discourage people from visiting the country by making the process of obtaining visa a miserable affair. Nigerians who regularly travel to this country already know what to expect.

But I made up my mind never to bother about travelling to the country if I had to go through that agonizing treatment in order to obtain a three-month visa. That was in 2009. We hear the high commission has now outsourced its visa processing service.  Well, that’s a matter for another day.

So let’s go back to the eatery. I suspect the business must be suffering now that visa applicants no longer go to the consular office.  But while the boom lasted, the owners of the eatery might have observed that some fatigued visa applicants simply came into the place to wait for their turn to go into the consular office. They therefore saw a need to warn such “unwanted” customers to stay clear if they didn’t want to eat; hence, the sign.

You may wonder: which of the two set up in the area first – the eatery or the consular office? To hazard a guess, I would say that the owner of the eatery must have noticed an opportunity to offer visa applicants a cool-off spot.

In other words, the eatery came to serve visa applicants!  Ironically, some visa applicants became unwanted customers! I’m not exactly certain that customers cared so much about that notice mentioned earlier, but I know that any attempt to enforce the no-eating-no-sitting rule would have enraged the already frustrated people who trooped to the eatery.

Now let’s rephrase the negative message into a positive, friendly (perhaps enticing) communication.  How about this?
“Relax.  Have a meal and a drink, while you wait for your visa.”

Let’s face it.  How many of us can sit quietly in a restaurant (while waiting for whatever) and shut our nostrils to the aroma of hot, steaming food?  I suspect that the longer you stay around a restaurant, the greater the urge to eat or drink something.  Which should be good for our mamaput friends!  But the chaps chose to ruin their own business by putting up that insolent sign.

By the way, if they had strong competition, they would have been the ones begging those visa applicants to just come in and relax.  After all, even five-star hotels don’t bounce people who stay in their lounge without buying anything.

Well, the guys in the eatery obviously didn’t plan to dish out Marriott-style service. But those of us who do can learn a thing or two from their style of communication. When communicating with customers, we should focus on the positive. We should avoid putting up signs that tend to insult customers.    For instance, how do you see the following two signs?

1. “Customers are not allowed beyond this point.”

2. “Out of bounds to customers.”

Do you think it’s possible to rephrase those signs in a way that doesn’t give the impression that customers constitute a nuisance?  I think so.  Take a look at the signs around your office.  Do they speak nicely to customers?  How do you know?  Simply put yourself in the shoes of the customer.


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