Why threatening customers doesn’t work

I'd never thought National Lampoon was serious when they ran that famous cover showing a worried canine with a gun held to its head - the cover with the headline that read, 'If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog.'

I’d never thought National Lampoon was serious when they ran that famous cover showing a worried canine with a gun held to its head – the cover with the headline that read, ‘If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.’

But having endured several months of renewal intimidation from a publication I’ve subscribed to for a decade and a half, now I’m not so sure.

With time pressures and an overabundance of other material begging to be read, I’d been reading their magazine with decreasing thoroughness. Sometimes I wouldn’t read issues at all and they’d end up becoming mere fodder for the recycling bin.

Concerned that neither environmentalists nor my accountant would approve of my wasteful ways, I decided to let my subscription lapse for a while.

I forget exactly when the publication took exception to my decision but, in a letter dated July 17, the publisher told me that my ‘lack of response to our two earlier invoices has forced us to send you a third.’

Of course, I hadn’t ‘forced’ them to do anything. So I let the matter go, figuring they’d get the message and that would be the end of it. But in October I heard from the publisher again. And I was incensed.

Before explaining the main reason for my feelings of outrage, let’s consider his letter.

The unsolicited missive I’m referring to stated that ‘At your request, we have mailed you several invoices for your subscription – so far we have received no response!’ He was right about the lack of a response, but dead wrong about the other point – I’d never requested a single invoice, let alone several.

Perhaps tellingly, right after accusing me of welching, he said: ‘I can’t even guarantee you’ll receive the next issue,’ then contradicted himself saying, ‘We need confirmation you’re receiving [the magazine] – and that you want to keep receiving it.’

So what are you trying to tell me, I wanted to know. That you’ve been sending me the magazine or not? That you’ve been sending it as per my request or are you now asking me if I want it?

I was also curious as to why the envelope was postmarked Oct. 10 but the letter was dated Sept. 4. What did that say about their efficiency?

But what really got my proverbial goat was the way they slandered me in front of my letter carrier, not to mention any staff involved in the mailing. The outer envelope screamed, ‘INSIDE: Important information regarding an outstanding debt.’ They might as well have written on the envelope: ‘To the deadbeat who works at this address.’

The OE accusation left me angry enough to contemplate defaming their character in return – maybe picketing their offices with a sign reading, ‘You haven’t paid for the work I did for you.’ (I haven’t done any work for them and they don’t owe me any money. But what the hell – I don’t owe them money either but that hasn’t stopped them from telling the world that I do.)

As it turned out, I shouldn’t have contemplated picketing. I should have actually done it. Maybe it would have kept them from mailing me again in mid-November with a flaming red, 1-1/4′ envelope head announcing that this was my ‘FINAL NOTICE!’

This time the publisher wrote, in a letter that again took them six weeks to insert into an envelope, ‘Dear Ex-Subscriber, Some months back, as you asked us to do, we started a subscription in your name. You received a dozen or more weekly issues, an invoice for your subscription…and then several reminders.

‘Yet we have heard nothing from you: No payment for the ordered subscription, no cancellation request.’

He sounded so certain I’d ordered a renewal that I began to doubt myself. I started sweating that perhaps I actually had authorized a subscription…maybe in my sleep or something. So I sucked up my courage and phoned them to clear the matter up.

As I waited for someone to answer, I became more worried that they might know something I didn’t know. I began to prepare an apology in case he uttered the words I now dreaded to hear – ‘I have your signed request-to-renew in front of me, Mr. Knight.’

My concern was needless. The moment I told the Circulation man that this non-renewer had been getting demand-for-payment notices, I knew I’d been right all along…because he immediately said he’d cancel the subscription. Not so much as a: ‘Hmmm. Let me check on that.’ Just, ‘I’ll take you off the list right away. I’m sorry for the trouble, sir.’

To paraphrase Shakespeare, Methinks thou dost not protest enough. Or to coin a phrase myself, Methinks thou hast been trying to bluff me into thinking I owest thou money.

Incredulous, I asked the Circulation man how I could have been sent so many notices claiming, with increasing ire, that I had renewed when, in fact, I hadn’t. He said that it was because I was on their automatic renewal plan. But how can that be? With those plans, you authorize a subscription to be renewed automatically until you tell them to stop. If I was on their automatic plan, why hadn’t they been cashing my cheques or debiting my credit card, instead of sending threatening letters?

Experience has taught me that, while you may get away with tricking your prospects, it rarely pays to try pulling the wool over the eyes of customers. It’s invariably better to forgo one sale in order to make many more sales to the customer in future.

The entire business made me think, if this is the way they treat a subscriber of 15 years’ duration, a less loyal subscriber might do well to remember National Lampoon…and keep a close eye on the family dog.

P.S. To the parents of Santa fans: Get your kids to visit the Canada Post Web site which has some excellent seasonal games…and NORAD’s www.noradsanta.org which tracks Santa throughout Dec. 24, presenting fascinating ‘real-time’ video clips of the man in red as he journeys around the world.

Among his duties as president and creative director of R.J.Knight & Associates, Bob Knight is in charge of scrutinizing magazine subscriptions. Now somewhat periodically-deprived, he has more time to dedicate to your direct, integrated or e- marketing project. So feel free to contact him at b_knight@telus.net