This is the third chapter in The Lost Customer, a series focused on the small but crucial mistakes made by businesses that ultimately cost them customers. The first two in the series can be read here and here.

Imagine that you’re out and about on your lunch break, and suddenly, nature starts calling. You nip into the closest store and ask where their toilet is, only to be told, “The toilet is for paying customers only”. Well, nature is getting more insistent in her call, so you buy the cheapest thing you can find and then seek your sweet relief.

This sort of thing happens every day in cafes, restaurants and shops all over the country. It seems innocent, and even reasonable. They have a facility they provide to their customers at a cost to their business, so it only makes sense that they would expect you to buy something to compensate them.

Fair enough.

Except, it isn’t.

Regularity is key

Ask any business owner which they would prefer – repeat customers or new customers – and nine times out of ten, they will say repeat customers. Bob’s Brewhouse has many regulars. Joe from the office down the street comes in for a sandwich once a week, Mary from the hairdressers drops by for her daily morning caffeine fix, and there is a range of familiar faces popping in all the time.

These customers don’t just visit Bob’s for their products and services. They visit because they like the vibe, or the people running it, or the decor, or for a dozen other reasons. They get a positive experience each time, which brings them back.

Now, one day, Bob starts thinking that all that toilet paper, scented bowl cleaner and bottles of handwash don’t grow on trees (well, the toilet paper might, but I digress), and decides to implement a customers-only bathroom policy. The next time Joe walks by his favourite cafe, he happens to hear that call of nature and decides to pop in. Much to his surprise, despite having spent money there in the past, he is refused usage of the facilities unless he buys something this time.

Joe is pissed, literally and figuratively. He buys a day-old discounted muffin, does his business and leaves.

The cost of urine

For the price of a stale baked good, Bob has just lost Joe as a customer. The focaccias taste good, the decor is stylish and they make a nice latte. What changed was Joe’s perception of the brand. His impression of Bob’s Brewhouse has just irrevocably changed from that funky little cafe with the cute barista and the tasty sandwiches to a money-grubbing, greedy little tuckshop who don’t give a toss about their customers.

Lose some, gain some

Maintaining a publicly available bathroom is a cost of doing business in retail. However, what a business loses from ‘free bathrooms’, they more than make up for in positive experiences.

I may not be buying this time, but I am still a potential customer. Perhaps tomorrow, next week or even next month, I will want a sandwich. I will remember that you helped me out when I was in need. I will have formed a small (but valid) positive impression of your cafe, and I will come back. Nail that transaction and you’ve got a loyal customer.

It doesn’t take much. Just let me use the damn toilet next time, Bob.