The Princesses and the Pee: A Customer Experience Fable

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"Would you want your wife to pee in this place?”

Several years ago, the noted retail anthropologist Paco Underhill brought down the house at a Fast Company event when he posed that question. It was, he said, the one he most liked to ask store executives when he toured their establishments.

As was Fast Company’s practice at the time, we hurriedly had our team of graphic designers, standing ready behind the scenes, cobble together a poster featuring the slogan, and we slapped them up on walls outside the ballroom where he was speaking. When the audience exited, they were displayed in all their lurid glory. But they didn’t stay up for long. The irreverent flyers quickly became one of the hottest take-home mementos of the conference. Underhill had clearly touched a nerve.

That was the first bathroom story that came to mind when I was asked to participate in one of the pre-eminent blogging events of the season: the first annual Bathroom Blogfest. The gala blogathon, the brainchild of Stephanie Weaver, consultant and author of the upcoming Visitor Experience Handbook, and Susan Abbott, a consumer researcher in Toronto, is designed to celebrate, vilify, elucidate, and educate readers on the the current state of global restrooms (one of my fellow bloggers hails from India, which should make for some mighty interesting cross cultural bathroom anthropology.) The fest coincides with National Kitchen and Bath Month.

Since signing on to this conclave (which includes posting from seven other bloggers with bladders) I’ve been paying more than usual attention to the conditions under which I relieve myself in public places. And let me tell you: even in New York City, the conditions range from extremely posh (the Mandarin Oriental), to extremely dark (the cave-like conditions at Lever House), to extremely skinny (the Manhattan Theater Club), to extremely grubby (the gas station near JFK.)

To Paco Underhill's point: women, especially, care about these things. My impression of 20 Pine, a luxury condo development in the financial district whose lobby and fixtures are by Armani Casa, instantly went down a couple notches when I was directed to a bare-bones ladies room behind a black curtain that lacked paper towels and smelled of disinfectant. Alternatively, I am always grateful when I discover a department store whose well-kept restrooms offer hooks for handbags (especially following the recent report on all the germs women’s purses pick up from bathroom floors!) and shopping bags, and enough tissue so I’m not forced to throw myself on the kindness of the woman in the next stall..

If customer experience is the new retail mantra — the frontier on which companies can distinguish themselves from their competitors — then ladies’ rooms should be high on the list of zones targeted for attention. (so, too, should be dressing rooms, but that’s a blog for another day.)

Retail executives of the Y chromosome persuasion should be as vigilant about the state of their ladies lounges as they are about their store windows. If it takes sending wives, daughters, or random shoppers, graced with 20% off coupons for their trouble, to get the honest dish on conditions in the loo, then consider it time and money well spent.

And if your wife reports back that she doesn’t want to pee in that place, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Other participating bloggers:
Customer Experience Crossroads

What I Do for a Living

The Curious Shopper

Church of the Customer

Customers Are Always

Experienceology

Flooring the Consumer

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6 Comments

  • jan

    Yes, thank you, can places puh-leeze police their restrooms....including the men's; why should they put up with gross places, and yes, they need a Diaper Deck, too. Refill the soap, the paper towels & TP, and fix the busted stall doors and broken purse/bag hooks, or your whole store looks bad, I assure you.

    Wanna know why I love to shop at Nordstrom? Their bathrooms!

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  • Jed

    Love the innate sexism!
    no women talking about their husband's needs?

    are there no women working for Fast Co. who are capable of vocalizing their own needs and desires?

  • Sheila Scarborough

    Yes, thank you, can places puh-leeze police their restrooms....including the men's; why should they put up with gross places, and yes, they need a Diaper Deck, too. Refill the soap, the paper towels & TP, and fix the busted stall doors and broken purse/bag hooks, or your whole store looks bad, I assure you.

    Wanna know why I love to shop at Nordstrom? Their bathrooms!

  • Robin Zaleski

    On the flipside, Zagat's has a section called "Bathrooms Worth Visiting", highlighting restaurants who expand their design and service ethic beyond just their lobby and dining room.