I’m not just buying your product

Posted by on Dec 14, 2011

Well, Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2011 have come and gone, and by all accounts retail sales are up over last year, signaling a great month of December holiday shopping.

Most of the successful retailers are well aware of the importance of collecting customer information as part of the transaction, offering bonuses, coupons and discounts in exchange for the opportunity to start a relationship with you for the long-haul. As a marketing professional, I am quite happy to provide an email address if the company has a good privacy policy and I am a fan of the product.

Notice I used the word ‘most’ retailers. It still amazes me in this day and age of social media and permission marketing that some companies don’t get the fact that they are selling not just products, but relationships over time. I had two very interesting experiences the week leading up to Black Friday that left me wondering what were they thinking.

The first involved a clothing store chain. I’m a big guy and usually have trouble finding big and tall clothes that fit me. There’s a big and tall store I pass by on my daily commute, so I decided to stop and look at the merchandise. My initial experience was wonderful: I found several shirts and a jacket that looked good, fit me and were reasonably priced. The sales associate was pleasant and asked me if I wanted to sign up for their loyalty program. I agreed, since she promised sales announcements and coupons would be emailed to me. I went home and happily added the items to my wardrobe.

Then it started. Within two days of my purchase, my inbox had five emails from the retailer, and as I learned to my chagrin, from its affiliated companies. I read them, realized most of them were irrelevant to me, and deleted them. Then on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I received four more. Ugh. Delete, as many of them were the same emails as before. Thanksgiving Day? Two more. Not finished yet, I received three more on the morning of Black Friday. That’s fourteen emails in less than one week.

Guess what I did? Yup. I unsubscribed. I removed my name from their loyalty program. I also took the time to call the store where I purchased the merchandise and complained. “We’re sorry, sir, but that’s corporate policy.” “Well, I won’t be back, as much as I like your merchandise.” “We’re sorry you feel that way, but we’re very busy right now, so if there’s nothing else…”

My other example is AT&T. I’ve been an AT&T Wireless subscriber since the iPhone came out. Just before Thanksgiving, I took the opportunity to upgrade to an iPhone 4S. After some initial “near-spam” experiences with AT&T, I had unsubscribed from all their communications after I found my inbox filling with too-frequent irrelevancies. At no point during the transaction for my new phone was I asked if I wanted to change my communications preferences or if I changed them myself. To my great surprise, the next day there was a thank you from AT&T in my inbox. Then two more emails of a marketing nature. Then a third one arrived the following day. I clicked unsubscribe and again took the time to contact AT&T directly about my dissatisfaction. “We’re sorry” is about all I got.

My point is, respecting the relationship you have established with a recent customer is just as important as the quality of the product or service you offer. Regardless of what industry or category you’re in, you are really in the business of selling relationships. It used to be that retailers were focused on sales associates and how to improve their performance in front of the customer. Marketers lamented that their promises of great service and a pleasant transaction were not fulfilled. It seems to me that some retail sales associates now have cause to lament that their excellent service is being undermined by poor relationship management practices by their marketing cohorts.

The morale of my stories: Don’t be so focused on the short-term sales numbers that you lose the relationship. There is an appropriate frequency and level of contact that provides value to both you and the customer. Monitor your unsubscribe rates; they’re an indicator when you’re abusing your customer database.