The Signs of Service


Share on LinkedIn

Private resort communities have driving rules that are different from those in public territory. We were vacationing at one of those super nice beachfront resort communities…the ones with the homes you might rent for the week of your 25th wedding anniversary. A hundred feet beyond the resort entrance security guard we passed a street sign that read “Speed Limit: 23 mph.” Everyone in the car saw it and commented. Yet, no one could recall seeing any of the many speed limit signs—those that read 55mph or 65mph–on the long drive to the beach area.

It was obvious what made this particular speed limit sign so effective in gaining our notice. The typical speed limit numbers can just disappear into the scenario never to be noticed or remembered. And, perhaps the 23mph sign now vanishes for the locals who live at this resort. But guests and visitors would not miss it! An Polish proverb goes: “A guest sees more in an hour than the host in a year.” “No parking” is not nearly as impactful as “Don’t Even Think about Parking Here.” We are so patterned to seeing the usual, we too often only notice if it is un-usual.

Customers today are bored with pretty good, nothing special service. They want their service experience to have a cherry on top! As customers, we like surprise; we prefer to ignore and/or forget bland. And, few things become boring and ineffective faster than service signage. Finding innovative ways to make the signs of service ones that are memorable and helpful can be a vital ingredient in any customer loyalty-building recipe!

Signage communicates a lot about your attitude toward customers. “No Smoking” can easily become “Thank you for not smoking;” and, with much greater success. “Overdue fees” at the library sounds much harsher than “Extended use fees” like the movie rental store when you keep a movie an extra day. “Keep off the grass” sounds much more parental and controlling than “We keep this grass tidy for your enjoyment.” “Help us…” is inclusive; “do not…” is not. Take a look at the signs you display to your customers. It could be the signage you write in an email or letter, not just those that hang on the walls. If your service signage was the only feature your customers had to determine how you felt about them, what would they conclude?

Craft service signage with your service vision or mission firmly in mind. If your service distinction has a particular tone or style, match it in the signage. If your service uniqueness contains a special feature, imbed it in the way you provide customers directions, guidance, or boundaries. The building someone goes to at Disney World to apply for a job is not called “Personnel” or “Human Resources.” It is called “Central Casting.” Theme park rides are labeled attractions. Employees are referred to as cast members. All these examples are carefully synchronized to match Walt Disney’s vision of the most wonderful place on earth.

Make service signage fun and creative. A walk bridge in Northern Vancouver has a sign that reads “Attention Dog Guardians: Pick up after your dog. Thank You.” Under these words are ones directed at the dog…”Attention Dogs: Grrrr, bark, woof. Good dog.” You can imagine the impact on dog owners charmed by the fact that the sign maker assumed their beloved pet could also read.

Be respectful. A street painter deliberately misspelled the word “School” to read “Shcool” painted in giant letters on the street approaching a school zone. While some appreciated the tongue in cheek humor, many parents were not amused at the gesture.

You might be able to be courageous if you are playing to a small niche market and can take liberties with minimal concern for the masses. Try Googling “Jobsintown ads.” Using the side of popular vending machines in very public areas, this Danish company painted life-size avant-garde pictures of people as if they were working inside the vending machine with the clever caption: “Life’s too short to have the wrong job.” The signs are extremely memorable! But many of their provocative signs would make a sailor blush! Most organizations do not have such creative license.

Watch out for incongruence in the messaging. I was working at a large auto auction company. At one of the auction sites the cafeteria used by employees and customers (wholesale auto detailers) sported a large sign on display promoting their auto reconditioning services. The sign itself was in desperate need of reconditioning. On another occasion, I stopped at a gas station with a sign over its front door that read, “The customer is king.” However, the sign on all their gas pumps read, “Please pay before pumping.” How many kings would expect to pay before pumping? What do you expect on the other side of the bathroom door of a restaurant that advertised “clean restrooms?”

In the end, service signage should be helpful to customers. Best-selling author Seth Godin wrote in one of his blogs: “Imagine how much easier it would be to find out where you were going if every sign with the word TAXI on it had it in yellow instead of white. Once you knew the color of where you were going, you’d just naturally scan for it.” Smart organizations take empathy walks with customers asking them at each step along their experience trail what they see and recommend. It can help you see what only your customers can see since they are viewing from a perspective akin to “Speed limit: 23 mph.”

Customers judge service greatness by the details managed by the service provider. Granted, as customers, we tell stories about all the service heroics, over-the-top extras, and extraordinary experiences. However, no matter how superior the service enchantment, if it is veneered over an important detail that fails to deliver, the magic is quickly judged to be counterfeit. Service signage might seem like a lowly detail but it is a powerful signal your customers use to determine if service is ho-hum and wow!

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here