Over the weekend I encountered two signs that got me thinking about the messages large organizations send to those they serve (sometimes these are “customers,” other times they are “patrons” or “constituents”). Everyone knows that organizations have a tendency to put their own needs first. We’ve been hearing management gurus berate corporate America for this since at least the late 1980’s. So the better organizations try very hard to lean against that bias.

Still, it’s incredibly difficult to do from the inside. And even when you try, it’s easy to botch the job.

Here’s are two cases in point, discovered at two separate Wendy’s drive-throughs. The story of why I went to two Wendy’s is a story for another time.

At the first Wendy’s, as I pulled away from the menu board where I had just ordered, I saw this sign:

wendy's money

To help serve you better . . .

The sign told me: “To help serve you better, please have your money ready.” I get that. If we all drive up with our money ready, the line will go a lot smoother. We won’t get as many bottlenecks. But the way this is phrased is a lie. The reason for me to have my money ready is so the line goes more smoothly — not so you can serve me better. I would feel better about the admonishment without that “to better serve you” type of intro, because it is disingenuous. Just tell me to have my money ready.

I didn’t think much of it, until they got my order wrong and I had to go back out. I had already had communications problems at this restaurant, so I went to a different one, thinking I might have better luck there. At Wendy’s #2, where they thankfully got my order correct, here’s the sign I saw:

"If you fail . . . "

"If you fail . . . "

This sign was telling me, “If you fail to receive a receipt with your order please notify manager before leaving window for a refund of price paid.” Again, I get it. This is a way of making sure that everyone’s accountable — they’ve got an audit trail, and I’ve got a way to check my order.

But once again, the sign is saying the opposite of what it means. They really mean: “If WE fail to give YOU a receipt.” But it’s phrased as a failure on MY part.

I’m not resentful at this in any way. It is an illustration of just how hard it is, as a matter of practice, to execute the idea of being outward-facing. Each of these signs has a fundamentally good purpose (keep the line flowing; make sure people can check their orders), but the purpose was executed without any sort of external filter.

As organizations communicate with their constituents, they need to make sure they are running everything by someone who has the right mindset — someone who can put themselves in the shoes of the end user. This is harder than you might imagine because it involves a lot m,ore than just being smart. It takes empathy and creativity. The bigger the organization, often, the more these kinds of people get pushed to the margins and become hard to find.

(Please note that this is nothing against Wendy’s. I’ve seen the same tendencies in lots of organizations. They just happened to conveniently illustrate my point.)