What’s worse? – indifference to customers or antagonism of customers 1

My assertion is that poor customer service (bad cash register
skills, lack of help on sales floor, arguing with customer during
sales process) is better than customer unfriendly service (imposition
of lose-lose rules “with a smile”, forcing fliers to throw away their
nail clippers rather than mail them back to themselves, cancelling
flights that are not full enough to pack the next flight, etc.)

As a concrete example, Border’s Books in Union City (maybe elsewhere
too since the workers in the trenches don’t dream up these things
unless they are looking at bottom line numbers — typically done by
managers) has developed a particularly unfriendly policy of:

  • not letting customers browse magazines in the eating area even if
    they have purchased drinks and food.
  • not letting customers sit at certain tables and ‘study’ even if
    they have purchased drinks and food. The idea of study is
    inconsistently defined to using a computer. To my confirmation,
    reading a book is ok. It might even be a book that has some
    educational use. And the rule isn’t as much enforced as it is bullied
    into compliance. The hard-skinned can ignore the employee requests
    and the softer skinned, more sympathetic customers will reluctantly

“So what,” you say. The lack of an empty table discourages newcomers
from wanting to buy drinks and sit down, and consequently reduces
revenue. But is it better overall to let new customers be visually
discouraged from buying food and drink, or to verbally discourage
existing customers from ever patronizing the business again. These
disgruntled customers then make a point of buying books from barnes
and noble (where I haven’t personally experienced any verbal
confrontation at any of the many stores I have been to), amazon or a
local store, and write scathing commentaries online.

So the net effect before and after Border’s Cafe rules:


  1. buy food and drink ( + profit )
  2. read and work
  3. maybe buy book (+ profit)
  4. go to step 1 over period of weeks/months.


  1. buy food and drink ( + profit )
  2. read and work
  3. maybe buy book (+ profit)
  4. get offended at verbal confrontation (0 profit short term, but –
    profit long term )
  5. go elsewhere ( – profit)
  6. don’t bring friends (- profit)
  7. write weblog commentary ( – profit through influence)

The history of Border’s increasing customer offensiveness is roughly
as follows:

  • 1998 – All is well with Border’s cafe
  • 1999 – Barnes and Noble superstore with a cafe opens up 1/4 mile
    away and draws away a lot of Border’s customers revenue.
  • 1999-2000 Tipping is no longer allowed at Border’s Cafe. This one
    is a surprise, isn’t it?
  • 1999-2000 – San Mateo Border’s Cafe starts to verbally discourage
    use of computers by telling customers to not plug their computers into
    the wall. Yes, corporate policy thinks an extra 12 cents of
    electricity is worth verbal confrontation with customers.
  • 2002-2003 – Union City Border’s Cafe verbally discourages
    browsing of unpurchased magazines in the cafe.
  • 2003-2004 – Union City Border’s Cafe verbally discourages
    “studying” at tables

As far as I know, there is no competing bookstore near the Union City
Border’s Books. Before 1999, my impression of Barnes and Noble wasn’t
so great. I liked Border’s selection better. Barnes and Noble seemed
to have too many penguin classics and science fiction and not enough
current literature. In 1999, they caught up and I think effectively
overtook Border’s in the sense of selection, presence and experience.

As a footnote, cafes all over have had to learn to deal with the
worst customer: the student. There are many ways of various
effectiveness and palatability:

  • limiting table time
    during busy periods and doing so in a fairly consistent and insistent
  • requiring you to buy some amount of food or drink to remain
  • explicitly banning studying (a most reprehensible rule as
    explained above)
  • limiting table sizes or number of tables to
    discourage sitting at tables and rather get food to-go
  • making environment unattractive to sit in (think fluorescent
    lighting and linoleum tile that feels like someones kitchen)
  • serving all drinks in to-go cups to encourage you “to go”.
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  • John

    My advice…study at or hang out at eMocha Cafe…Great Coffee & Food (Fresh Smoothies, as well). Free Wireless Access and pretty nice enviroment. Oh..Free Wireless Access..