Ten years ago this month, on the morning after I gave this speech in Lucerne, my wife and I were walking through the restaurant at our hotel across the lake when a friendly American gentleman having breakfast buttonholed me to say he liked what I said in my talk. I thanked him and asked if he’d be at the conference again that day. He said yes, and that it would be nice to talk later.
Turns out he was the first speaker that morning. His name was Lee Scott, and he was the CEO of Wal-Mart. Later at lunch, which consisted of boxed food you could take out to tables by the lake, he came over to the table where my wife and I were sitting and asked if he could join us. I said sure, and we got to talking. One of the questions I asked him was why K-Mart had failed while Wal-Mart succeeded. He compressed his reply to one word: coupons. K-Mart had hooked its customers on coupons and couldn’t get them un-hooked. This tended to produce too many of the wrong kinds of customers, buying for the wrong reasons. Way too much of K-Mart’s overhead went into printing what was in essence a kind of currency — one that reduced the value of both the merchandise and the motives for buying it. By contrast Wal-Mart kept to old Sam Walton’s original guidelines, which minimized advertising and promotion, and simply promising “everyday low prices.” This saved money and helped build loyalty.
The coffeeshop proprietor, Jessie Burke, was shocked at how much money the daily deals site charged to run the promotion. Groupon sold consumers a $13 Posie’s credit for $6, and then sought to keep the entire $6. Eventually, Posie’s and Groupon agreed on a 50% cut: Groupon would get $3 and Posie’s would get $3. Groupon’s $3 was almost pure profit, but the cafe had to use its remaining $3 to cover the costs of $13 worth of cookies and coffee.
Is it any surprise the promotion was a smash? Over 1,000 customers used the promotion, but the cost imposed by those customers resulted in disastrous losses:
After three months of Groupons coming through the door, I started to see the results really hurting us financially. There came a time when we literally couldn’t not make payroll because at that point in time we had lost nearly $8,000 with our Groupon campaign. We literally had to take $8,000 out of our personal savings to cover payroll and rent that month. It was sickening, especially after our sales had been rising.
The losses would have been worthwhile if the Groupon customers had become loyal, profitable patrons but many only cared about a discount, not about what made the cafe special:
Over the six months that the Groupon is valid, we met many, many wonderful new customers, and were so happy to have them join the Posies family. At the same time we met many, many terrible Groupon customers… customers that didn’t follow the Groupon rules and used multiple Groupons for single transactions, and argued with you about it with disgusted looks on their faces or who tipped based on what they owed.
To be fair, the bad customers were neither “Groupons” (as Jessie calls them) nor “Groupon customers” (since they didn’t buy anything from Groupon — in fact Posie’s was the real Groupon customer). They were coupon shoppers. Promotion hunters. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Most of us play that role some of the time. The problem for Posie’s is one of the oldest in retailing: promotions are good for causing traffic, but lousy for causing loyalty. And making constant promotion part of your business changes your business, literally by cheapening it.
What’s clear about Posie’s is that it’s a business built on human contact, on conversation and relationship. Not just on transactions — and least of all on discounted ones.
Relationship is personal. Even at the biggest companies, success and failure ride on personal behavior, and personal connections. “Trust breaks down first over money,” David Hodskins (my business partner of many years and a very wise dude) observes. Throwing coupons into a personal relationships, especially business ones, is a recipe for trouble.
Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, businesses large and small have also looked at individual relationships with customers as a kind of cost — one that can be reduced or eliminated, often by avoiding or de-humanizing conversations with customers. Promotions like Posie’s with Groupon are just one example of how cheapening gimmicks can actually damage a business that depends on personal relationships between a company’s people and its customers. There are many more examples, especially at larger companies, which too often turn customer support conversations into reverse Turing tests: making humans sound like machines.
Making relationships work has always been both the foundation and the frontier of business. Ideally, technology should help relationships. And to some degree it does. Telephony and other “social” technologies certainly do help us stay in touch. But there are many other technologies, and uses — including some in the “social” space — that prevent or pervert relationships.
Earlier today, when I went looking for Bermuda tweeters, I went down the list of nearly (and now more than) 500 followers of @BDASun (the Bermuda Sun newspaper). A large percentage of followers are just there to promote something. On a day like today, when a hurricane is bearing down on that tiny country, you can tell the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is dealing with the hurricane (or stays quietly hunkered down). The chaff just promotes.
This has me wondering how much of “social media” today is devoted to being social in the old-fashioned literal sense, and how much is about marketing and promotion. Because I think there is a huge split between the two: a split as sharp as the one between Posie’s good and bad customers.
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