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How to Make Rules That People Will Follow

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Businesses are having to make a lot of decisions and impose a lot of rules right now. Maybe it’s rules to keep customers safe, to make sure employees are well taken care of, or perhaps to be in compliance with state and local laws to help control the pandemic. Or all of the above. Every public-facing business has had to introduce a change of rules and new protocols.

There’s nothing wrong with imposing new rules, especially when they are in the best interest of others. The problem comes in when imposing rules without context. When there isn’t context, the backstory behind the rule, you are less likely to get people to follow along.

Give people a reason to follow

There was a church with a beautiful lawn in a park-like setting that local residents enjoyed walking their dogs. Unfortunately not all dog lovers are responsible parents of their fur-babies and were leaving piles of dog poop around which became a problem for the church. They put up signs asking people to pick up after their dogs. It didn’t help. They added signs that warned of a fine if they didn’t pick up after their dog. Have you ever seen that enforced? Most people know that’s an idle threat so as you might expect, the signs and threat of a fine were ignored. Until someone had an idea. Signs were posted that said, “Children play here. Please pick up after your dog.”

Apparently the dog poop problem stopped. It’s because people were given a reason to follow the rule. The signs, “Children play here” provided context. Without context people will often not only ignore the request but it can also incite resistance. We humans don’t like to be told what to do without some explanation and reason for the request. The problem is we have many businesses now, as this church was doing initially, imposing rules and not providing a compelling reason to follow the rule.

“A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all.”

Eliminate confusion

I sat outside a retail store the other day watching a young lady try to manage customers entering the store. There was one set of double doors to enter the store and one set of double doors to exit the store. All in an attempt to count and manage how many people were in the store at one time to keep everyone socially distant. To enter the store, there was a designated pathway, sort of a rope-line as you would see at an airport TSA. Simple enough it seems. It’s not like we haven’t seen it before. 

But not everyone is used to this new pattern when shopping and many people tried to enter through what was now the designated exit. She had to stop every person and redirect them to the end of the line. To make matters worse for reasons I still don’t understand, beside her was an entrance into the rope-line which dead-ended. The shopper needed to walk all the way around to the beginning of the line on the other side. The whole process was unnecessarily confusing. 

Why the entrance into a dead end? Why was the entrance into the line the opposite side of the entrance? This added complication was painful to watch and I could see emotions for the young women and the customers getting elevated in frustration.

Provide an explanation

In another instance I sat at a table enjoying a cappuccino, or should I say trying to enjoy, as customer after customer tried to enter a store in front of me that had the entrance locked. No sign as to why the door was locked. Once again, it was a means to control how many people are in the store by limiting access to one entrance where someone can count. That’s simple enough. 

People will likely follow along if you explain it. Put a sign on the door explaining as much. In this case, they needed a sign that read, “Please enter on the first floor where we can count how many customers we are serving to keep you safe.” They also weren’t doing themselves any favors because if you didn’t see customers through the glass doors you might assume they were closed. A simple explanation and perhaps signage goes a long way.

“Things work out best for those who make the best of how things work out.” – John Wooden

Get everyone on the same side

A salesperson in a men’s clothing store was explaining to me the strict rules they have about trying on clothes. The fitting rooms are closed and now the sales people have been asked to not allow people to try things on in the store. Apparently, some guys are just dropping their pants and trying things on right there on the sales floor. Furthermore, they are not allowing customers to try anything on over their clothes that requires sliding it over your face, such as a sweater that you might want to try on over a shirt. He mentioned that customers are really getting agitated. 

I suggested he get the customers on the same side. My suggestion was to say to the customer, “I know it’s frustrating and we feel the same way. But here at xyz store, we have chosen to be part of the solution and not the problem so that we can stay open and so that you can continue to shop.” Providing some context will get everyone on the same side, set a common goal and explain the bigger issue. We want to stay open so you can shop. Most customers want that too.

I’m all for businesses doing the right thing during these times and being a part of the solution. In the long run, it will expedite when things can get back to normal, whatever normal will be. I’m also certainly in favor of businesses, particularly small businesses, reserving the right to be autonomous, make decisions in their best interest and setting rules. But it’s up to businesses, the ones imposing the rules, to provide some context. Explain the bigger picture of the rule. If rules are tossed out without sufficient explanation you can be assured of resistance and disobedience. Providing context goes a long way.

Whether it’s during a time of necessary changes or at any time a business needs to impose some rules, the key is to inspire compliance with a compelling reason, eliminate confusion, provide sufficient direction, get everyone on the same side and make everyone’s life easier.

Small business consultant, and speaker, Jeffrey Shaw is the author of LINGO: Discover Your Ideal Customer’s Secret Language and Make Your Business Irresistible and The Self-Employed Life: Business and Personal Development Strategies That Create Sustainable Success. Jeffrey's TEDxLincoln Square talk is featured on TED.com and he's the host of the top-rated podcast, The Self-Employed Life. Please connect with Jeffrey at www.jeffreyshaw.com or Instagram.

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