Give Pees A Chance: When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go
What happens when a supermarket staff member tells a person with a hidden disability that their toilets are closed? No apology. No solution. Just raised eyebrows and a Paddington hard stare. What happens when you ‘Can’t Wait’? Time to lift the lid (and put it down again, fellas please) on not so good customer service.
TOILETS. I have become a world expert at seeking them out. Since my MS diagnosis and some of the complications that go with it I have acquired a finely tuned toilet s(h)at-nav — a wee toilet detector, as my friends north of the border might say.
Not the sexiest of subjects to be talking about, but it’s one that affects all of us. We all need to wee and, dare I say it, poo too. I know. Shock horror and oh so embarrassingly British. (Brexshit anyone?)
So, when those bodily functions go rather awry, as mine did during my first ‘MS Episode’ 12 years ago (why does it make me think of a Friends episode — the one where a supermarket hasn’t got a pot to p*** in perhaps?), it truly alters your perspective and priorities when you’re out and about.
Take it from me, I’ve done the ‘wee-wee walk of shame’, or should I say, limp of shame, on more than one occasion, and it’s not pretty! These days I’m a cheap night out as I very rarely indulge in alcohol, which means I can’t even lay it at the ‘too much to drink’ door.
Given this confession, it’s not surprising that I’m always on the loo-k-out for a toilet. Hell, I even have a radar key, which allows me to use disabled loos. I’m so grateful for it, but why does it have to be so big, like it’s a throwback from the Elizabethan era?
I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Yes, I remember that size doesn’t count, but my key’s weightiness and length is impressive. So why, oh why, can’t this key be the key to the Doctor’s Tardis? It’s such a disappointment when I turn the lock with that Narnia sense of excitement (or is it an urgent need to pee?) only to discover, all too often, on the other side of the door, a rather dingy, less than fragrant public convenience, complete with overflowing bin and an emergency cord that lulls you into a false sense of security. It serves as a throwback to my youth and family bathrooms, with emergency and light cords hanging side by side. Today, armed with this ‘knowledge’, I’m all too aware that an embarrassing situation is only a quick pull away (I’m trying very hard not to resort to Carry On-style humour here).
Terminator Style Toilet Search
Anyway, yesterday evening it was time to put my toilet detector into action. With a two- and-a-half hour drive home ahead, I got that familiar feeling. So, a quick search on the phone and a rather well known supermarket chain popped up, just five minutes off our route. Great!
Relieved (well, not quite, but I was hopeful), I drove to the store, parked the car as swiftly as I could while practising my pelvic floor (who said multi-tasking is a bad thing?) and in through the doors I limped.
Imagining a giant, gleaming toilet scented with rose petals and lavender awaiting me, I scanned the aisles with laser precision, like a scene from Terminator 2. But nothing.
Feeling the panic (and my straining bladder levels) rising, I scanned the perimeter again. Aha, a café! There’s always a loo near a café. It’s a legal requirement, right? I can pop to the loo then pick up a few essentials (oh the irony of needing to buy toilet rolls too!) before heading back. Fabulous.
Alas! I was wrong. Nil Toilettes. Nada. Rien. Nichts. Oh merde! (Channeling my French ancestors, obviously).
Feeling slightly flummoxed, I went to the cigarette kiosk and politely asked a woman behind the desk where the toilets were. Staring at me, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, in a slightly clipped tone, she said they were closed for maintenance.
Funny that, I’ve had this response before from another supermarket chain. Is this the standard reply that is part of ‘customer service’ training these days? Fob them off with a few conveniently placed ‘out of order’ signs to save on cleaning bills and an already reduced staff the problem of having to escort a person with a ‘hidden disability’ to the staff loos, often miles away from the shop floor? Possibly.
And there’s another point of discussion, what happens if a staff member has a disability and needs the loo more often? Are they allowed longer or more regular breaks to ensure they have enough time to answer the call of nature? I should hope so.
Anyway, back to my supermarket sweep. At this point, dear reader, this is where some of you may chastise me for not having a ‘Can’t Wait’ card ready to pull from my purse. This is a card available for people with conditions that may require urgent toilet access. While it’s not guaranteed to give you access apparently (why not?), it is widely accepted across the UK with an international version available for those trips abroad.
So, sans card, I responded something like this to kiosk woman: “Are the toilets closed every night? Is this a regular occurrence? What would happen if I had a disability? I think you’ll find having no toilets open is illegal.”
Tension was clearly in the air, mixing with that familiar supermarket scent — a curious mix of shoppers’ perfumery with fresh bread and something else. No time to figure out that one and get to the loo on time.
Cue raised eyebrows from staring kiosk lady and this: “We don’t need to open the toilets because the café is closed.”
Now, it could have been my slightly raised blood pressure that deceived me, but was there an ever so slight hint of sarcasm from kiosk woman as she bade me a ‘good evening’?
Abandoning my plans for a quick bit of shopping and with a bladder fit to burst, I left the area with a ‘Great PR. Well done.”
#Sarcasm — not a surprising retort, given my day job as a business owner who coaches people on the power of positive publicity for their company. This was most definitely a bad piece of PR in the making!
Flushing Out Bad Customer Service
So, what should have happened? In my view, something like this. Easy with good customer service training and a degree of customer concern and understanding on behalf of the team member:
Me: Can you tell me where the toilets are please?
Kiosk woman: I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid they’re closed for maintenance.
Me: Are the toilets closed every night?
Kiosk woman: No, it’s a temporary thing which we are working hard to resolve as quickly as possible.
Me: What would happen if I had a disability? I think you’ll find having no toilets open is illegal.
Kiosk woman: I’m so sorry for this situation, but if you have a disability and require the toilet urgently I’d be happy to call a colleague to escort you to our staff toilets.
Me: Yes, I do. Thank you so much for your understanding.
Everyone’s happy and I’m no longer doing the wee wee walk of shame. In fact, I’m so impressed by the actions of the lovely supermarket staff member that I sing her praises and that of her colleagues all over social media. Simples. And THAT is powerful PR.
Now back to those ‘Can’t Wait’ cards. Before I am shot down in flames, yes, they’re a great idea… in principle. I’m sure there are lots of you reading this who are so relieved (sorry, couldn’t help another pee pun) by their existence and have used them on numerous occasions.
Time For More Trust And Better Communication
But my point is, what happened to good old fashioned trust and communication? Never more important, arguably, than when we need to pee? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we didn’t need a card with two or three words on it to ask permission to use the smallest room?
Have we become so fear based and cynical these days that we must scan the enquirer and ask for a card to ensure they meet the criteria required for having a wee or a poo in a supermarket, rather than taking them at their word?
Whether it’s a ‘Can’t Wait’ card or a friendly response from a member of supermarket staff, kindness and understanding goes a long way, especially this time of year.
When temperatures are dropping and so many of us can be caught in Christmas stress — a situation that can send many bladders into overdrive — surely this is exactly the right time to start showing goodwill to all and make this a positive attitude change for 2019 and beyond.
So please, please, please, if you work in a customer facing job (with or without good customer service training) spare a thought for those people with ‘hidden disabilities’, both with and without a ‘fast track’ card to the nearest loo who are genuine and who might just feel a little embarrassed and a teeny bit stressed about asking for help to do the simplest of things.
Only a tiny, tiny minority might be in the habit of seeking out a loo so they can shoot up or hide their shoplifting booty about their person. Please don’t tar us all with the same brush with your cynicism. All of us need a tinkle, a dump, a wee, a piss, a poo. However beautiful or crude the language used, it’s all the same and when you gotta go, you gotta go.
Every Little Helps, especially when it comes to helping another human so please be kind.
Asha Clearwater is an NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) qualified journalist who’s been a news reporter, features editor and arts editor, as well as editor of several national business magazines.
Today, through her business Turquoise Tiger, she coaches SMEs on the art of great storytelling to promote their products and services.
Asha occasionally freelances as a writer for national magazines and is even behind some of the information boards you’ll find strolling through Woodland Trust Forests.