Monday, November 16, 2009

When Offline Service Undermines Your Online Brand

Hysteria, slackerism and other bad habits to watch out for

There are several online brands – including, Zappos and Dan’s Chocolates – from which I would buy practically anything. Their customer experiences are spectacular: efficient, empathetic, and enjoyable.

Office superstore Staples has long been on my list – until recently.

Don’t get me wrong: I love’s ease of ordering, special deals, record-keeping, Rewards Program, and free shipping for orders over $50. The site is both wildly convenient and dependable, and it is always the first place I turn when I need supplies.

But lately, Staples’ offline service is undermining all the great work the company has done in building its brand online – at least in this customer’s mind.

I receive too-frequent calls asking me about how my Rewards Program is “working out for ya.” The caller reminds me that I should have received my latest Rewards check (yes, I know this and I always spend them). She is there to help me if I need anything (yes, I know this too). As a small-business owner (who, for better or worse, is the office manager as well as the president of the company), I am not usually thinking about office supplies first thing on Monday mornings. I said this the last time I picked up the phone. (In fact, I usually think about it on the weekends - and love the ability to place orders 24x7.) Worse, the transaction, on the Staples end, has an edge of hysteria, making me wonder about the stability of Staples’ business.

The personal touch is important, but not if it’s intrusive – and only if it delivers real value to me as a customer.

Instead, why not send me a personalized email every Monday morning, with the representative’s contact information? This would enable me to react and respond based on my needs. And spare me the poor diction of the caller. (In the past, Staples employed clear-speaking people who would field service calls – and even call me if my shipment was delayed. Those days appear to be gone.) I still skim all mail from Staples. The vendor would have found this out if it ever surveyed me.

It gets worse.

Last week, I received a call from the IT services group of Staples, Thrive Networks. The caller inquired if “you guys” had anyone taking care of our IT systems and asking if the caller’s company might help “you guys.” First, I am not a guy (obvious by my name and voice on the telephone). Second, I am a PROSPECT with MONEY to spend on office supplies and tech support – not your friend from the bar (otherwise why are you calling me?) This was the all-important first chance to make a good impression – and the caller failed. He also introduced more cognitive dissonance into my decade-long good feelings about the brand.

The most troubling thing about these transactions was not the transactions themselves. It was the fact that they demonstrated a startling lack of empathy or understanding of the customer (a small business-owner who by definition is busy and one who is obviously a woman). I no longer feel that Staples knows me at all - even though the company has collected all that information about me. (Much of the information is in fact available to me in my online account).

One might argue that Staples was a bricks-and-mortar company first, and an online company second, making the comparison with Amazon, Zappos, et al., unfair. But other bricks-and-mortars do a great job of delivering a consistent brand experience across offline and online media. (I wrote about one recently, Hafner Vineyard, a small family-owned business.)

My advice to marketers: if you struggle with this problem, go back to the basics. Think about who you are selling to, what their problems are, and how you can best help the customer. That’s a good start.

PS: I am still a Staples customer, and fervently hope that it can fix these problems.

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