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Unintended Messaging

a sign on a counter

Unintended Messaging

I was in a meeting in a restaurant the other day. It was a beautiful late summer day with the sun was shining brightly in the windows. It was a good and productive meeting, but something kept catching my eye to the left of me: It was the clear footprints on the windowsill from when someone was washing the glass. They did a great job on the glass because the footprints were so clearly visible! Our table was banked right up against the windowsill, so it was not a stretch to put 2+2 together and recognize that they stepped on a chair, then on the table to get to the windowsill. Upon closer inspection, yes that is what they did; footprints on our table.

Now think about the bottom of your shoes and the dining room table, it goes without saying how wrong that is. After my companion noticed this too, she started to observe the rest of the environment. When something like that is placed in your mind, it plants a message. And unpleasant details begin to present themselves elsewhere, bringing us to face a harsh reality: Unintended messaging drives out other, more deliberate messaging. 

Many things we do in our business’ create unintended messages. 

We need to be incredibly careful with what we do, and how we end up doing it. When we do things out of commonplace routine, we go into an autopilot state of being. In my years of training restaurant sales teams, we have talked about how destructive autopilot is to their incomes. That is because commonplace routine is unconscious repetition. This is when someone is just going through the motions.Now we know there was no maliciousness involved with the footprints, but it was just an unconscious act that paints a picture of someone who was working in autopilot mode. It is the ultimate in insincere service, and unconscious operations.  

When you walk in the door, the same door at the same time every day you risk not seeing what may be gradually changing in the business. Step out of this routine and put yourself in the shoes of your valuable guest and hopefully you’ll find where there may be unintended risk to your messaging. 

Some classic autopilot messages from the guests view: The menu that has some of yesterday’s soup on it. Scratch and sniff menus. Nope. Sorry, that’s not a good marketing platform. Texture on condiment bottles and service ware. This is a neon sign that says: someone else with messy hands was touching this bottle, and nobody fixed it after Mr. Dirty Hands left. Table 27, the wobbly one that has a dozen napkins stuffed under one leg. Stuffed by who? An irritated guest, or a team member on autopilot? The music, is it too loud, too quiet, or is it a selection for the benefit of the staff and not the clientele for the intended atmosphere?  

From the staff point of view: The utility cart with one wheel that doesn’t work anymore, the reach-in door knobs that are being held together with bailing wire, and that employee information board that hasn’t been updated since you opened. There are all kinds of messages being sent to your staff in these examples.  But the most concerning would be that their work experience is not a priority. 

When we are running on autopilot, we risk the potential ripple effect of the unintended messages we send. When you hear the phrase; “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” this is an autopilot red flag.

In today’s health and safety climate and the hyper competitive nature of getting and keeping good paying customers… can you really afford to take an autopilot approach your business? Being on autopilot can place all the powers of messaging on the side of destruction towards your brand. 

Most importantly: The greatest damage to your brand can be done imperceptibly, bit by bit. 

This is where you need to take that step back and look at your routines from your guests, and your employees’ point of view.  For your brands’ trust and reputation, ask yourself:

”Is this the best way to do this? And what message am I sending in doing it this way?”   

All these types of observations that you could be making or missing, leave unintended messages in the eyes of your guests and valuable employees. What is the message you want to send? Perhaps it is worth it to really look at how you’re washing the windows, not just the windows themselves.

Chris Patterson is a Managing Partner at Navigator Consulting.

If you’d like to discuss this article or have any questions, please contact Chris at: