Managing customer expectations: What are your business’s unwritten rules?


I practice yoga regularly. The studio has a few posted rules. Things like: no phones. Use a quiet voice. No smoking.

But there are also unwritten rules. Like: don’t enter the room during the opening incantation. Don’t step on other people’s mats. No chit chat during class. No drinks accept water.

For a new visitor who inadvertently violates an unwritten rule, the reaction can range from mild embarrassment to never wanting to visit the establishment again. It’s awkward for the customer and detrimental to the business. 

You can’t really blame the yoga studio for not posting every single rule on the wall. Too many ‘notifications’ and no one bothers to read them. And it’s a business with a high percentage of returning customers who are already familiar with the standards.

And you certainly can’t blame the first-time attendee who doesn’t know that bringing in a drink is verboten. How would they have known?

What’s a business to do to mitigate this issue?

Step 1: Come up with a list of your unwritten rules

The first step is to sit down and think about what your business’s unwritten rules are. This is hard! Much of the culture of a company is determined by the personality of the owner (particularly for a small business), and it takes a bit of introspection to put to words.

While you’re at it, if you haven’t already done so, this is a good time to write down your written rules (aka shop policies).

Some examples may include:

  • Returns will be honored for 30 days for purchases in original packaging with a receipt
  • Rewards programs/discounts are not in effect for sale items
  • ‘No food or drink allowed’ or ‘we welcome beverages with a lid’
  • ‘You’re welcome to sit and knit anytime with any yarn’ or ‘please only sit and knit with yarn you’ve purchased from our store’
  • ‘Employees must punch out at closing time, so customers will be asked to wrap up their purchases 10 minutes prior’ or ‘we’re happy to remain open if there is a customer serious about making a purchase’
  • ‘We are happy to set aside items for you to purchase at a future time’ or ‘we cannot set aside items’
  • No phone conversations inside the shop or at the register
  • ‘Photographs and social shares welcome’ or ‘please no photography in the store’

The list, as you can imagine, can be incredibly long. That’s okay!

Step 2: Be proactive about potential misunderstandings

Now that you have that list, let’s talk about how to put all of those written and unwritten rules into action.

  1. If you haven’t done so already, you should have a small number of posted (written) policies where they are most relevant to the customer. A ‘no beverages’ sign at the door (point of entry) and a brief description of the return policy at the checkout counter.
  2. Hold regular staff meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page. It is incredibly confusing for customers to have varying experiences with different staff members.
  3. For unwritten rules, brainstorm gentle ways of phrasing the expectation to a new customer that doesn’t leave them feeling embarrassed. Remember that they shouldn’t be expected to read minds! Something like, “I turn into a pumpkin at 6pm, so I’d love for you to wrap up your purchase before our closing time so I can make sure you’re taken care of!” with 10 minutes notice will send most customers the message.
  4. Add verbal or written reminders of rules wherever it seems appropriate. For example, when handing a customer a receipt, it’s a great time to casually add, ‘you can feel free to return it with a receipt within 30 days’. Or when you’re advertising a Knit Night, adding to the description, ‘we love to see what you’re working on, but please keep in mind that Knit Night is reserved for projects using yarn purchased in the shop’ can set the expectation in advance and avoid an awkward situation.
  5. Revisit your expectations regularly and assess if they need changing. Perhaps you thought not bringing a drink into a shop was a no-brainer, but customer after customer comes in with a coffee in hand. It may be a sign that your expectations aren’t in line with your customer base.

You can’t put every unwritten rule into a billboard and you can’t mitigate every possible misunderstanding, but with these tips, you can make your shop a more welcoming environment for new customers and encourage them to become back time and time again!

If this post interests you, I wrote a related post about creating an employee handbook for Craft Industry Alliance. Have a look!