Successful business operators in every industry look for any competitive advantage that can help them retain every customer who walks through their doors.
Today''s tough economic conditions require that business owners and operators pursue every realistic retention strategy.
One very effective strategy for customer satisfaction can be found in an unlikely place: The restroom.
In a recent national online poll, conducted by Harris Interactive and sponsored by SCA Tissue, 2,175 U.S. adults were surveyed on their perceptions of restaurants and restroom cleanliness.
The hard data results confirmed many of the assumptions that previously had been supported only by anecdotes.
Of the 97 percent of adults surveyed who visit restaurants, 88 percent agree that restroom cleanliness is a reflection of hygiene standards throughout the restaurant, including the kitchen and food prep areas.
Patrons link the hygiene of the restroom to the hygiene standards of the business as a whole.
It''s not much of a stretch to consider how restroom presentation and hygiene impacts businesses beyond restaurants.
It''s hard to imagine, for instance, that people visiting a health clinic or a dentist office would be more forgiving of an unsanitary restroom than they would be of a dirty restroom in a restaurant.
Not only restaurant patrons, but everyone who visits commercial restrooms has also come to expect clean, well-serviced and stocked facilities with equipment that works and employees who respond quickly when problems are reported.
The restroom is a reflection on the entire operation.
The poll found that 29 percent of those surveyed said they would never return to a restaurant that had an unclean or unsanitary restroom.
The percentage of never-returns is much higher among people 35 and older — 33 percent — than those 18 to 34 years of age — 20 percent.
Another 54 percent reported they would hesitate to return; the odds of repeat visits from patrons who found unclean restroom conditions are quite unlikely.
Even more ominous is the negative word of mouth that can result.
People don''t keep negative restroom experiences to themselves.
Of those who visit restaurants, 50 percent said that they would tell friends and family about the unclean or unsanitary conditions they had found.
Moreover, 46 percent reported that they would avoid going to a restaurant because of a bad restroom experience they had or one they heard about from someone else.
That''s the kind of word of mouth advertising no business can afford.
Making sure your customers have a neat, hygienic experience, even in the restroom, is well within your control.
Simple preventive measures can help present a sanitary and stylish image from the start and slow the decline from just-cleaned tidiness into notify-the-management mess.
So, why aren''t all businesses — especially restaurants — taking simple steps to ensure customers are provided with hygienic, tidy restrooms?
It is likely that too many see the time and money they spend on front-of-house restrooms as a cost rather than an investment in their business.
However, seeing restrooms only in terms of cost is a huge mistake.
The real cost of skimping on restroom hygiene and maintenance is a loss of reputation, image and customers.
It makes little sense to spend significant amounts of money on branding and communicating that you care about customers, only to give them a malodorous, messy restroom that they believe represents your hygiene standards in the kitchen and back of house.
The problem areas pointed out in the survey are relatively easy to deal with, if you''re paying attention.
Bath tissue was linked to several common complaints, including insufficient or low-quality toilet tissue and dispensers that don''t work properly.
The fix? Consider your traffic, and choose wisely.
Jumbo rolls or twin dispensers, which hold higher volumes of tissue, can help ensure that your customers won''t be unpleasantly surprised to find an empty toilet tissue dispenser at the worst possible moment.
Many high-quality dispensers are available that effectively protect tissue rolls, while offering easy dispensing for patrons.
Designs are available to complement a range of decors, including even the most upscale, while locking dispensers offer reliable security against pilferage and theft.
Just as important, skimping on tissue quality sends the wrong message.
You''re spending all that media money to create an image for your restaurant or business, and then you use low-quality paper in your toilet tissue dispenser?
These days, there are many tissue options that offer optimal softness and absorbency, as well as 100 percent recycled tissue that provides the opportunity to reinforce environmental responsibility.
If you want your restroom to look tidy, then take advantage of the variety of available dispenser options — ranging from simple, multi-fold dispensers right through to top-of-the-line electronic, hands-free towel dispensers.
Imagine the disconnect in a patron''s mind when he or she walks into the restroom of a five-star restaurant and sees a messy stack of loose hand towels next to the sink.
It''s not hygienic, it''s not part of your image, and it clearly leads to excessive use.
Small investments make a huge difference
Hands-free towel dispensers add a thoughtful, hygienic detail with the benefit of clean, modern styling that can enhance the look of your restroom environment.
These dispensers are widely available in both electronic and mechanical hands-free options, offering a range of sensible pricing choices.
And, these dispensers offer the added bonus of using high-capacity roll towels, reducing the frequency of refills, even in high-traffic venues.
Added bonuses of hands-free dispensers include better control over patrons'' towel consumption and a reduction in waste, minimizing the likelihood of overflowing trash cans.
They also help businesses reduce their overall environmental footprint, while controlling costs.
The message from customers in this survey is clear: Ignore the hygiene of your restroom at your own peril.
In these challenging times, all businesses are seeking customer retention.
Not paying proper attention to your restroom is worse than a false economy since it undermines your business.
Preventing the kind of customer erosion and negative word of mouth that stems from bad restroom experiences is not difficult, and customers know it''s not difficult.
That''s why the issue makes them so frustrated and angry.
Customers are angry enough never to return, and angry enough to tell others about their unhygienic experience.
It''s not as though they''re asking you to make a multi-million-dollar investment.
It''s a matter of spending an extra hour a day looking after the restroom, and maybe investing in some dispensers that will pay dividends in reduced usage, increased hygiene, and customer retention.
Ian West is SCA Tissue North America category director – Washroom. SCA Tissue is the third largest manufacturer of away-from-home tissue products in North America with sales of $1 billion in towels, napkins and wipers under the global Tork® brand (www.torkusa.com). West has 30-plus years in the industrial/institutional market in hygiene and sanitary products. Prior to joining SCA Tissue, he worked in a wide variety of roles both technical and marketing for SC Johnson in Canada and the U.S.