To Serve and Protect

It’s on those windy autumn days, when just looking at the ice cold rain outside sends a chill to the depth of my bones, that I’m grateful we’ve managed by some miracle to keep our garage clear enough to pull the car inside.

Our garage door had opened and closed almost 20,000 times over thirteen years, far outlasting many of the other builder-installed add ons in our home, when even the most generous squirts of WD-40 would no longer silence the ear-splitting squeals of failing mechanics.  One day it refused to open at all.

Our new model came with an exterior keypad so we could open it without the ‘clicker’ by punching in a series of numbers (which I can never seem to remember).  I didn’t think we needed this feature and in keeping with my reputation for frugality, I tried to negotiate a better price to exclude the keypad.  What if rain causes a short circuit and the thing goes berserk, opening our garage door while we’re out one day?  The salesman reassured me that a protective cover on the keypad would keep this from happening.  The price was a package deal with no option to omit the external unit.

So you can imagine my dismay when I returned home last week, in the middle of a driving October rainstorm, to find the protective cover lifted and the keypad exposed.  A plastic bag containing a “Water Analysis Data Form” and a small plastic bottle had been hung from the unit.

I was alarmed by the prospect that there might be something wrong with our water.  But reading more closely I realized that this wasn’t a public health initiative.  It was a marketing ploy.

The form read like an official notice and carried a number of logos, including the Canadian Water Quality Association and the Better Business Bureau, along with instructions for collecting the sample.  A series of questions asked, ‘When was the last time you had your water tested?’ and ‘Is drinking water quality important to you?’

Looking beyond my own driveway, I could see that my neighbourhood was littered with these bags.  They were hung on garage door keypads, garage door handles and even the odd light fixture.

This kind of marketing really bugs me.

Years ago, while chatting to our neighbours we learned that they had signed up for a long term fixed price gas contract.  Debating the merits of fixed versus market pricing for gas, we quickly came to appreciate that this seemingly bright and well-educated young couple had entered into the contract with little thought.  The salesman had seemed official, and gave the impression that everyone in the neighbourhood was making the ‘obvious choice’ and signing on.  I had often wondered how these door to door companies stay in business; doesn’t everyone know to shut the door in their face?  Apparently not.  It’s not just elderly grannies who get duped.

At the very bottom of the “Water Analysis Data Form” there was a telephone number.

“Yes, I’m calling to complain about the marketing materials that your company has littered throughout my neighbourhood.”

“One moment please.  I’ll put you through to the marketing manager in charge of that program.”

Several minutes of on hold beeps gave my blood ample time to reach a rolling boil.  While I waited, I dropped the bag of marketing materials into the kitchen trash can.

When the marketing manager finally took my call, I gave her a heady blast.  I criticized the company’s marketing practices and called them unethical.  And I fumed about distribution people having the nerve to fiddle with my private property and expose my garage door keypad to the elements.

“I am so sorry!” she said.

She really sounded sorry.

“The delivery team should never have touched that.  It is most definitely not the way we want our materials to be delivered and I completely understand why you’re upset.  On behalf of the company, I want to sincerely apologize.”

Well, that really took the wind out of my indignant sails.

“I want you to know how much I appreciate you calling to let us know.  I’m sure there are many people in your neighbourhood upset about this, but it was you who took the time to pick up the phone and call us.  You see, we hire distribution companies to deliver the materials and although we give them instructions as to how this should be done, we would never know they weren’t following our instructions if it wasn’t for you.  Thank you so much for calling.”

I didn’t quite know what to say in response – you’re welcome?

“We’ve been in business for many years and have a reputation to protect.  I want you to know that we will make this right.  Can I ask your address so that I can contact the team responsible right away?”

This woman was AWESOME at her job.  In just a few minutes she managed to completely diffuse my anger and endear herself to me.  She was just the kind of authentic, empathetic and articulate person I enjoy working with and she was incredibly passionate about the company she works for.  In fact, I was so taken with her, that after I hung up the phone I reached into the trash and retrieved the flyer to look up the company name.  And I started to wonder, “Maybe we should get our water tested.”

Now, I’ve come to my senses since then.  I still think the best water out there is the stuff continually monitored by municipal water professionals that pours straight out of my kitchen faucet for practically nothing.  But I share this story because it’s an illustration of the power of fantastic customer service.  There is no more difficult job than that of the complaints department.  The people who do it really well have a special gift, and the potential to save a company from damaging word of mouth that can render marketing efforts useless for years to come.

I worry about the future of customer service in a world where it’s farmed out to faceless call centres.  It’s easy to tell when someone is reading from a script; there’s no heart baked into the words they say.  When customer issues become ‘transactions’ billed by the minute, with the objective to mark the issue closed as quickly as possible, the true nature of customer service is lost.

And marketing for these companies, gets a whole lot harder.

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Has it Really Come to This?

I simply couldn’t believe the commercial I had just witnessed was for a real product.  I described it to my husband but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t manage to paint a picture that fully conveyed its weirdness.  After months of keeping my eyes and ears alert every time there was a television on in the house, I had almost convinced myself that it had existed only in my twisted imagination.

But a couple of weeks ago, Taylor finally got the iPad she had long been saving for.  Eight months of assembling community newspapers and delivering them in all manners of inclement weather, combined with birthday and Christmas requests for Future Shop gift cards finally culminated in her becoming the first kid in her class to own the newest iPad.   And it has led her to re-discover YouTube.

Yesterday she came thumping down the stairs to share her latest find….   the commercial I remembered from so many months ago…  it wasn’t just in my head…. it was REAL!

Here it is.

Isn’t it every married person’s nightmare that at some point their spouse starts wearing stuff like this?  I used to think that wearing track pants to the mall was a sure sign that someone had ‘given up’ but the Forever Lazy sets and entirely new standard.

I don’t buy for a minute that anyone would wear the Forever Lazy outside.  This is a product for the self imposed shut-in.

The phone rings: “Hey Joe, a bunch of us are playing darts at the bar next door.  We were just saying we haven’t seen you in a while.  Want to join us?”

“Gosh, I don’t know if I can,” Joe replies, stroking the soft plush of his Forever Lazy.  The thought of wriggling out of his fleece zipper suit and squeezing into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt seems like a lot of work.  He isn’t even sure his jeans still fit.  “I’ve got a few things to do around here.  I’ll maybe catch you next week.”

As I have learned from my Lululemon yoga pants, it’s a slippery slope when you make a habit of wearing stretch fabrics on a daily basis.  But at least Lululemon hints at athleticism of some sort.  The Forever Lazy screams slovenly.

I can’t even think about that butt trap door without giving myself the shivers.

But there’s a market there.  Judging if only from the parody videos I found on YouTube, people are buying them.  I got a particular giggle from this girl’s ‘product review’ video.  She says she doesn’t own a Snuggie because she thinks it’s like wearing your bathrobe backwards, which of course is true, but she did buy a Forever Lazy… four of them, in fact!

News flash — the Forever Lazy sucks.

Nothing says Christmas like a form letter

I started sending Christmas cards in November of 1991 which I now realize, with shock and awe, was twenty years ago.  My university graduation photos were barely dry, but I was proud to be living in a shared apartment and supporting myself (more or less) on the modest salary of my first, entry level job in marketing.  My roommate and I had discarded the standard, starving-student milk crate shelving system in favour of an IKEA model.  We had dressed our living room window with a cheap, cotton valence stuffed with tissue paper and invested in colour co-ordinated towels for our bathroom; all in an effort to start living like grown-ups.  Sending a batch of Christmas cards was just one more grown-up thing to do.

But it wasn’t until 1998 that my Christmas card list exploded.  Fresh off our August wedding, Craig and I had complete addresses for 162 of our closest friends and family, and I was still filled with gratitude for the generous good wishes that they had showered upon us.  At the time we lived in a condo.  There was no snow shovelling to be done, little space to decorate and Moms on both sides that would take care of the holiday cooking.  I had time on my hands and so I was up for the challenge of tackling our huge list.  I simply put on some Christmas music, poured myself a brown cow and revelled in the holiday spirit as the pile of heartfelt cards grew beside me.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep up my tradition of Christmas cards.  In some cases it would be our only contact that year with far away friends and family, and so I was eager to keep the connection going.  But as our family grew, so did the number of traditions we accumulated.  One Christmas tree to decorate grew to three; one container of outdoor holiday greens grew to nine; and one batch of favourite cookies grew to six different varieties.

I did my best to maintain my tradition of inscribing holiday cards with personal notes on the dim hope that my friends and family would take this as a signal of how deeply I cared about them.  However I had a sneaking suspicion that the deeper meaning might have been missed by the recipients.  After all, while the first ten or so were full of detail and witty remarks, the next twenty were more general.  As time went on, the notes became increasingly brief and littered with plagiarism from my previous missives.  By card #56 I was down to: “All is well with us.”  I’ve always felt guilty about those last few.

So this year I decided to join the ranks of the standard holiday update letter.   Call it a throwback to my years of training in corporate efficiency but standardization seems like a sensible approach to ensuring high quality communications across the board.  And as an added bonus, my elderly relatives will no longer be challenged to decipher my sloppy handwriting.

I’ll admit that it has crossed my mind before to take the leap, but my Mother had strong negative feelings about this practice.  In her mind, these letters were all about bragging.  Little Susie won a prize, Thomas Junior graduated with honours and big Joe lost 40 pounds.  None of this went over particularly well in my immediate family where applause was sporadic and always tempered by a healthy dose of: “Don’t get too full of yourself.”

But personally, I have always loved receiving these updates.  Especially for families that I see infrequently, it makes me feel closer to them to know what they’ve been up to over the past year.  A friend the other day said that she once received an update letter that gave a blow by blow of the many traumas experienced by a particular family over the past year: divorce, sickness, loss.  What kind of a holiday greeting is that!?  In my humble opinion, if there’s ever a time to sugar coat, Christmas is it!

So if you’re someone who sends me a holiday update letter, keep ‘em coming!   And if you’re one of those update letter haters out there, please accept my sincere apologies for the sunny picture painted in my holiday greeting.  Would it help if I told you I had a wicked case of hemorrhoids last spring?

Happy holidays everyone!

I Dreamed I Won the Lottery

Yesterday, as I opened the card attached to a gift from Craig and the kids, out tumbled a “Classic Black” lottery ticket promising a top prize of $500,000. Imagine if I won!?  I couldn’t get to the cutlery drawer fast enough, to fetch a spoon and start scratching!

My brother Stephen says lottery tickets are a tax on the stupid, and I used to agree.  After all, the odds of winning anything substantial are so remote that regardless of
whether you have one ticket or twenty, they’re pretty much the same.  Close to zilch.

Back in the olden days, when I had a real job and a big salary, I almost never bought lottery tickets.  However, now that I don’t have a steady source of income I’ve found
myself buying tickets on a semi-regular basis.  How else are we going to get our hands on a cool quarter million???  We’re certainly not going to be able to save that figure in the near future.  A lottery win has become our only chance.

Plus, I now have time to buy a ticket.  In my prior life, shopping was all business.  I didn’t have time to dilly dally around, trying to choose a scratch ticket from the display case.  Even if someone gave me a scratch ticket as a gift, I could barely find time to enjoy the experience of uncovering the bingo/keno/scrabble spaces to see if I had won.

But now, not only do I need the money, but I have the time.

Although I have a fair amount of hope pinned on a lottery win in the near future, I know from my days in consumer packaged goods marketing that the odds are much better on the contests and sweepstakes offered by commercial companies.  So I’ve become quite active in these as well.  Every month, when my issue of Chatelaine arrives I flip to the ‘Have Your Say’ section in search of the question of the month and the associated prize pack.   I do my best to pen a witty response and monitor my inbox for a message containing the good news that I have won (any day now, I’m sure.)

Two years ago, the chance to win a Game Day Experience with Sidney Crosby would have been tossed in the trash with our Dempster’s bread wrapper but today the PINs pile up on my kitchen counter along with contests and offers from other products that I regularly buy, until I can find time to go online and enter them all.

A couple of weekends ago I sat down at the computer to attack this pile.

The first website I typed in was for Elle Magazine and their monthly ‘Win It’ promotion; the colour of the nail polish in the prize pack had caught my eye.  Unfortunately, the contest website address didn’t work.  Never one to give up easy, I tried going through the magazine’s main site.  Typing ‘Win It’ into the search box yielded nothing of value, nor did typing in the issue date of ‘October 2011.’  It was fifteen minutes before I was finally able to locate the contest entry screen, by which time I was convinced I would be the only entrant, given how difficult it was to find.  Diligently, I filled in the required data and pushed the ‘submit’ button, only to be met with a warning from my computer that I should think twice before going any further; the site was trying to attach cookies to my machine.  I do love cookies, but I vaguely recalled that techno ‘cookies’ were designed to function as little spies  monitoring your online activities and sending information back to the Mother Ship.  Crap!  I knew that Craig would have my head if I did anything to compromise the security of his beloved iMac, so I reluctantly aborted my quest for the nail polish.

Next, I pulled out the Rice Krispies box we had emptied at breakfast that morning.  A free $5 gas card promotion had motivated me to purchase this humungous package.  Eagerly, I tore open the carton to retrieve the unique PIN code printed inside.   This time, the web address I entered worked fine but the page gloomily declared that the promotion was over.  What?!  How old was the cereal that I’d fed my children that day?  Holding the carton at an angle where the embossed expiry date caught just enough light to become legible, I was shocked to discover that the product had been expired when I purchased it.   Now, I’m wise enough to check expiry dates on hamburger buns, yogurt and even pre-packaged deli meat, but Rice Krispies!?  Do I really have to start checking
expiry dates on shelf stable products?  I shuddered at the thought of how long it would take to do our weekly grocery shop.

Thankfully I thought, I had saved the best for last.  My latest box of Sunlight laundry detergent had contained a little instant win card that promised every PIN code was a winner, and so I held high hope for a positive experience.  In a few clicks I learned that I wasn’t a winner of one of the big prizes but I could still get a valuable coupon by continuing to enter information.  One of the pieces of information requested was the size and fragrance of the Sunlight I had bought.  Sadly, this was not on the tip of my tongue.  And so I humped my way up the stairs from the computer in the basement to our laundry room on the second floor to collect this information.  Lemon scent 64 loads, I chanted in my head on my way back down.  I proceeded to enter my name and address but hesitated when the site asked for my complete birth date.  Isn’t this a no-no?  I tried to enter just the year of birth but the site refused to process my submission without complete information.   I weighed the odds of the good folks at Unilever stealing my identity with my personal desire to have at least a measly coupon to show for the time I had spent online, and eventually entered the full date.  (Craig later tsk tsk’ed me for revealing this information and asked why I hadn’t entered a fake date of birth.  Good idea for next time.)

Finally, the site asked me to complete a skill testing question.  I’d had my morning coffee, but to be on the safe side I pulled out a calculator to do the math and then carefully typed in my answer.

“Your answer to the skill testing question was incorrect”

What?????   I used a calculator!  How could it be wrong?  I pushed the back button in an attempt to see the original question and identify the error I had made but the site wouldn’t let me get back.

With steam pouring from my ears I located the ‘contact us’ page and banged out a letter of complaint.  The icing on this bitter cake was the fact that I couldn’t find the ‘submit’ button to send my rant to the powers that be.   Arrrggghhhh!

I look back on my marketing days and regret that I didn’t spend more time pretending to be a consumer interacting with our products and the promotions we offered.  I spent so much time making sure that our communications OUT to consumers were strategically on target and legally sound, that I ran out of time to check to see what it was like for a consumer trying to engage IN.

Oooops!

Maybe the lottery is your better bet after all.