Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sales and Promotions Mistakes – It Could Be An Opportunity…

Two things happened this week that made me think about customer service and lost opportunities. The first event had to do with paper. I find the best customer service stories in the most mundane situations. Anyway, I was at OfficeMax and saw a wonderful deal. There was a stack of five ream cases of inkjet paper. On top of them was  a sign that said that the paper was $8.99. $8.99 for five reams of inkjet paper is a great price. The ten ream case was something like $35. Wow! While it was a great price, it wasn’t an outlandish one. Not too good to be true just pretty darn good. When I got to the counter, it rang up $30. Wait. What? Turns out it was $8.99 a ream not a case. Someone was supposed to have taken out the individual reams and stacked them outside the cases. Perhaps it said $8.99 a ream but I’m not so sure. Even if this was the case the type was so small as to not be obvious. Taking them out of the cases and stacking them up was supposed to be the obvious part. I declined to buy it and found a good deal elsewhere.
The second event was the arrival of a $15 Best Buy gift card from Napster. Napster had run a promotion on Facebook wherein you friend them and posted something (favorite song or album maybe) and they would send you a 1GB portable music player. Apparently, the response was so huge to the promotion that they ran out of music players and sent gift cards instead.
Both of these situations have two things in common. First, the company appeared to advertise something they could not deliver on. Second, they could not deliver because of a mistake or miscalculation. Now, I don’t have a problem with mistakes. Stuff happens. A lot of folks want to hold a company’s feet to the fire over honest mistakes. Super travel columnist and ombudsmen Christopher Elliott has written a boatload (pun intended) of columns about airlines or hotels that accidently post the wrong price and have angry customers who want a ridiculous rate. His advice is often summed up as “don’t expect something that is so ridiculously cheap it can’t be right.” Reading his blog I always get the feeling that these folks aren’t just looking for a bargain. They know it’s a wrong price and want to take advantage of the company. Whatever the legalities of the situation are you don’t take advantage of someone, even an airline, that way.
What I found most intriguing was the different reactions from OfficeMax and Napster. In the first case, OfficeMax missed out on a great opportunity with a long time customer. When it was obvious that this was a mistake, I no longer had the expectation that they would honor the price on the stack. I know some people who would demand the $8.99 price, even going so far as accusing the store of a bait and switch. That’s not right. Honest mistakes happen and we need to accept that. What OfficeMax could have – should have - done was offer me something, anything. If they had offered, say, a 10% discount on the case I may have bought the paper. Even if I hadn’t, I would have felt that they made an effort to own my business. It’s about showing the love, not what you get. It’s very likely that the store manager and clerk didn’t have the authority to do more than say “Sorry”. Too bad. OfficeMax lost a chance to sell me something and gain a bunch of goodwill. They lost twice.
Napster on the other hand could have just said “Sorry, we ran out.” The promotion’s fine print likely said something akin to “while supplies last”. They clearly know something about goodwill though. Sure, the player was worth more than $15 retail. However, I really don’t need another one and most people signing up probably don’t either. I only wanted it because it was free. By sending me something, anything, for nothing, they sent the message that they really did want my business and I was more to them than a social media marketing opportunity. A perusal through the comments on the Napster Facebook page shows that this worked. While there were a few grumblers, most said “Thanks for the free gift card!” Napster turned a potential marketing mess into an opportunity to connect with potential customers and say “I care about how you feel about Napster! You matter to us. Sorry about the screw up.”
All too often, companies just want to assuage the feelings of upset customers by tossing out a false apology. For them, it’s about making the problem child go away. I had that happen at Best Buy recently. By the time I left the store I was furious at the obviously fake “we’re sorry” that the customer service representative kept spewing mechanically. Instead, mistakes can be a chance to tell customers that you value them. By proactively doing something positive when you make a mistake, you can signal that your customers matter to you.  That builds a bond that is worth much more than the cost of doing something for the customer.
More than anything, just saying “sorry” is meaningless and annoying. You have to do something to demonstrate that you want to make things right. When you make a mistake, do more, say less, and have happier customers.

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