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When promotions go wrong

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As participles go, “excited” is a bit too strong, but “interested” is too limp.

I’m trying to describe my reaction to the email I received from a major air carrier, letting me know I was only a couple of hundred miles short of a first-class round trip ticket to anywhere in the United States. And if I had no immediate travel plans that would take me over the top, I could buy enough miles to cover the spread.

The minimum miles purchase was 2,000 for $59. Not too bad, so I clicked where I needed to click and arrived at the checkout page, which informed me that in addition to the sixty buck price tag, I’d also have to pay $35 in administrative fees.

My wife used to shop at Herberger’s. No longer, because Herberger’s is no more. One reason, we’re convinced, is that we weren’t the only customers who, attracted to the store and website by the many discount coupons they sent us, were annoyed to find that the coupon we held at any given shopping moment could not be used to buy the merchandise we had in hand.

The terms and conditions associated with Herberger’s coupons put your average end-user license agreement to shame.

Which leads to this conclusion, which in turn will lead to the point of this week’s essay: When it comes to structuring any sort of promotion, keep stupid out of it, and empathy for customers in it.

In the case of my first class ticket I can imagine the discussions that led to the $35 admin fee: “Deal momentum” would carry enough customers through that the net revenue gain outweighed the net reduction in total sales volume.

The math probably works. But the psychology doesn’t. All things being equal, the next time I travel I’ll do my best to avoid the airline in question. It’s an entirely predictable outcome, which would have been avoided through the simple expedient of concealing the $35 admin fee … an utterly preposterous number … within the purchase price, just as e-tailers that offer free shipping do.

Which gets us to the point, which is software quality assurance.

No, really.

Increasingly, as part of Digital this and Digital that, businesses are paying far more attention to the customer experience than they used to. As part of this effort, they’re creating mechanisms to understand how customers feel about their interactions with the company.

For telephone callers, it’s standard practice for companies to record calls so as to measure how well their call center staff are handling customer requests and complaints. Web and mobile apps are tougher, but methods for evaluating the customer experience in these environments are rapidly increasing in accuracy and sophistication.

It’s what internal IT would call UAT — user acceptance testing, which, done well, includes end-user suggestions as to how to improve overall usability.

Paying attention to the (real, paying) customer experience on the web and through mobile apps is admirable. I’m in favor of it.

What I suspect receives too little attention, though, is that unlike internal applications, the web and mobile customer experience includes more than layout, design, and functionality.

It also includes matters of more substance, such as the $35 admin fee I’m griping about here, coupons that are (or, in the case of Herberger’s, weren’t) redeemable on e-commerce websites and mobile apps, and, for a third example, requiring shoppers to establish userid’s and passwords before being allowed to buy merchandise.

Those who think in terms of organizational charts are likely to divide aesthetics, functionality, and substance into separate testing regimes. As with so many other forms of business dysfunction, this misguided use of the org chart is a likely step on the path to, if not perdition, at least suboptimalism.

This is because unlike everyone inside your company, for whom the org chart might be sacrosanct, Real Paying Customers don’t care an infinitesimal fig about who reports to whom or how responsibilities are divvied up.

They (which turns into “we” when you and I go home and shop for something) just find all of the above annoying.

Annoying, that is, is for Real Paying Customers a collective gerund, not a decomposable one. Which in turn means that customer experience testing should be collective as well.

KJR’s readers are increasingly being pulled into Digital initiatives of one sort or another. If you’re among them, promote this thought process:

The customer experience is holistic. We have to pretend we are, too.

Comments (9)

  • My favorite pizza delivery company has a web site that is designed to drive customers to call the store to place orders instead of driving customers to place orders online. They have physical coupons and you can’t redeem those coupons when you place an order on their web site, only when you call the store. So instead of placing an order online, which costs them less than 0.1¢, I call in and spend 5 minutes on the phone with their employee which costs them more than 50¢ and I get the coupon price which saves an additional $2-4 off of the cost of my order.

    • I suspect that somewhere in the decision loop is someone who is convinced “people want to interact with people.”

      • I should have given you more details. The pizza shop has some specials online that you can get by ordering online. But the only way to use the coupons that they mail to my house is to call the store. That doesn’t make any sense at all.

  • I was going ‘yeah, yeah’ as I read this column, and then I was hit with a ‘physician, heal thy self’ thought… to the extent that you view your readers as customers, there is a barrier to simply acknowledging a particularly good, relevant, well-worded etc column. Many times I wished for a ‘like’ button…

    • I view KJR’s readers more as my community than my customers. If you were my customers you’d be paying me for this, at which point I could afford to add features like a Like button … an idea I like (Like?), by the way.

      • At least I wanted you to know I ‘like’ many more of your columns than I comment on! (Although commenting does help me keep my arithmetic skills from totally atrophying – disconcerting how many times I have to think for more than a few seconds)

  • My favorite is the sites that won’t even let you browse without setting up an account.
    I’m sure some boss wants to _know_ everyone who is visiting.
    They don’t see all the refuseniks.

    Weirdest useful promotion I ever heard about was a sewing machine company, with 1 million unique visitors a month, splitting them into 10 groups to test a marketing campaign. In order to have a tenth option, someone came up with a bogo, buy one get one free on sewing machines.

    It actually encouraged more people to sign up. They’d call their friends who didn’t sew and have them get a machine for half price. The advertisers were stunned.

    One promotion that didn’t work. Got Milk? It is widely acknowledged as one of the all-time best promotions. Lots of money behind it. But how much did milk drinking actually increase? None. To increase consumption of a liquid in modern day America, it must replace some other liquid.

  • To be fair, the kids who are annoying TDs would be annoying no matter what age they are. There were really annoying kids before those bodies existed and there will be after. https://www.vetbizresourcecenter.com/

  • Ah, the ever popular “requiring shoppers to establish userid’s and passwords before being allowed to buy merchandise” feature I understand if at check-out payment time.

    The evil twin named “sign-up with name, e-mail, s-mail, phone number, plus the a password that must have a capital letter and a number or symbol, and be at least eight characters long” and then you have to screw around with a picture captcha JUST to find what they want for shipping. Sometimes I go through the routine but generally, when it comes to the password routine, Good Bye. I just wanted to know what you charge for shipping so all that stuff about my e-mail and s-mail and phone number is false.

    I don’t have to do this on eBay or Amazon or PayPal.

    Would it be so difficult to say up front what the password requires? Is it a worry about load on the web server? For an extra 300 characters of text? The script for the pop-up error message is more. If I want to use “chrysler” or “dodge” for my password, why can’t I? I’m just trying to buy a window switch for my truck or sending flowers for a sister’s birthday. Odds are I’ll never visit your site again.

    Actually, make it easy and give the shipping rates before requiring my information. Just add to cart, enter Zip Code. Choose shipping options if any exist. Done.

    If you want $15.95 shipping via UPS on a $7.50 item that can be stuffed into a padded envelope, or even nuttier, a Priority Mail VHS tape sized box, a free box from the Post Office that mails for about $7, I’ll go elsewhere.


    I have found a new thing to gripe about. It use to be that if you buy your license plate window sticker via mail, Texas hit you an extra dollar. Fair enough. That’s gone away. Now they tack on a $4.95 “Service Charge”. Even if you go and pay in person. Take a checkbook or cash so you don’t have to pay an extra 10% for using a credit/debit card. Yeah, an extra $5 charge or them to do their job. That’s annoying.

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