Why appreciate your customers when you can piss them off?

There is a key part of marketing communication that is too often overlooked, in the headlong rush to bring aboard new customers and sell stuff. I am talking about the attentive care and feeding of existing customers.
Mercedes advertising speaks to current Mercedes owners, reminding them that they are a special breed because they drive while staring out at that distinctive hood ornament. Sony advertising says to audiophiles, sure, you paid an extra buck or two, but you know it's worth it because you've got such a great ear. And so forth, and so forth.
It's good business. Your existing customer, at least once, no matter how briefly, had a good opinion of you, and it's wise and profitable to reinforce that. Smart companies do this as a matter of course.
Then, of course, there are the Canadian banks. Let me tell you what mine just did to me.

There is a key part of marketing communication that is too often overlooked, in the headlong rush to bring aboard new customers and sell stuff. I am talking about the attentive care and feeding of existing customers.

Mercedes advertising speaks to current Mercedes owners, reminding them that they are a special breed because they drive while staring out at that distinctive hood ornament. Sony advertising says to audiophiles, sure, you paid an extra buck or two, but you know it’s worth it because you’ve got such a great ear. And so forth, and so forth.

It’s good business. Your existing customer, at least once, no matter how briefly, had a good opinion of you, and it’s wise and profitable to reinforce that. Smart companies do this as a matter of course.

Then, of course, there are the Canadian banks. Let me tell you what mine just did to me.

I received by mail an updated Visa card, since the old one was about to expire. On the card was a little sticker, directing me to an 800 number by which I must activate the card. Security and all that, I understand the necessity, so far so good.

I obediently phoned the number and began communicating with a machine. This is also okay, I’m used to it. Machines help me pay my Toronto parking tickets, and vacation-stop my Globe and Mail; they do a good job without human intervention.

So I punched in what the machine asked for, my card number, my date of birth, this is still cool. Then the machine said something like, ‘Now, to complete your activation, we will transfer you to a human being.’ This is where it started to go to hell.

I was transferred to a human being, which of course meant that I was first put on Eternal Hold. After several minutes of listening to reassuring messages about my importance, I achieved contact. The human being then asked me to repeat everything I had told the damn machine.

Once I had done that, the human voice told me that my validation was not quite ready, so in the meantime he would make me an offer of incredible value. He proceeded to read me a long telemarketing script about how the bank would protect my Visa bill in case I caught cancer.

Please stop and think about where they’ve put me. I am being aggressively and annoyingly telemarketed, but I cannot hang up because I’ve initiated the phone call and I need the Visa validation! This is modern hell. They’ve got me. They’ve got me really pissed off, is what they’ve got me.

I waited patiently for the human voice to finish. I said, ‘No, thank you.’ The voice switched into Script Variation When Customer Declines, and tried further. I repeated, somewhat more loudly, ‘No, thank you.’ You know what? Magically, after a total of 10 minutes, my validation was now ready!!

Marketing departments always have a ready-made excuse for why their programs don’t work. They’ve been let down by their colleagues. They designed a great promotion, but the sales staff didn’t follow through. They created a great image campaign, but the service people didn’t deliver the smiles.

Not this time. This capture-the-client fiasco was obviously constructed by the Marketing Department itself, in order to produce a return of 89¢ on every hundred dollars of my Visa balance. That’s not a really hefty return for clobbering a customer relationship.

But of course, that’s what we’ve taught staffers to do. Companies reward their brand managers on short-term successes — how many extra widgets did we sell, how many Internet hits did we get. Achieve the right numbers, and win a promotion. Forget the long-term, we’ll fix that some other time.

Hey, that’s today’s business life. I’m sure that my bank alienated a lot of their good customers, but that’s okay, only one of them had the opportunity to write a column about it.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.