Messages that unwittingly unravel your marketing efforts

Businesses invest quite a bit of time and money into sending messages to their customers. Unfortunately, most don’t realize that many of their actions result in other messages that may be inadvertent, but are also pretty dangerous.

Financial institutions are particularly adept at delivering the wrong messages. After going through the semiannual ritual of gathering up loose change, carefully counting it, and putting it into rolls, I brought it in to deposit. As I slid the rolls across the countertop, the teller’s expression became strikingly serious, and she warned me, “You know, if any of those rolls are short, we’ll have to deduct the amount from your checking account.”

What did that simple statement say to me? First, she’s not confident I’m bright enough to count to 50. She has no appreciation for my having taken the time to roll my whopping $14 worth of change, rather than dumping a coffee can on her counter.

Most of all, she told me the bank didn’t trust me, plain and simple. Her words suggested I was very likely a thief who was trying to steal a penny or a couple nickels from her employer — the employer I trusted to protect significantly larger sums of my money.

I can hear a banker now, “You don’t understand. We lose money every year to people who miscount change …” I get that. I really do.

But what if instead of scolding me and suggesting I may have pocketed an extra penny or two, the teller had cheerfully accepted those paper rolls? If something came up short, she could call me, smile, and say, “We noticed your roll of dimes was short one. I hope you don’t mind, but we went ahead and debited your checking account.” Instead of suggesting a loyal customer was either stupid or a thief, why not focus on the small minority of customers who actually made mistakes?

Those hand-lettered signs we see in so many businesses are another example. Take a hamburger joint I used to frequent regularly. They make great cheeseburgers, but every time I approach the carry-out window to buy one, I’m confronted with angry hand-lettered message that interfere with my digestion and make me wonder whether the place really wants my business.

 “We don’t accept expired coupons, so check them BEFORE you come in!!!” read one. “EVERYTHING includes catsup, mustard, onion, mayo and tomato, so if you order EVERYTHING, THAT’S what your [sic] going to get!!!” screamed another.

Clearly, someone was tired of being confronted with expired coupons and questions about why onions appeared on their cheeseburgers. They addressed their frustration by crafting these signs, putting words in ALL CAPS and using multiple exclamation points so we’d know they were really serious!!!

Legitimate gripes? Perhaps. But those signs set the tone for the service. At best, it was bored and indifferent. At worst, it was obvious that by placing orders, customers were ruining that employee’s day. The last time I stopped by, the counter was dead, and I’m certain the owner was struggling to understand why fewer customers were ordering those tasty cheeseburgers.

Far too often, I’ve watched customer service employees dress down customers who foolishly presented expired coupons. “We can’t take that – it expired yesterday!” they’ll loudly pronounce, creating embarrassment for the customer. Sure, accepting a recently expired coupon might cost the business a few cents, but what will it pay off in terms of goodwill? More important, what will that refusal cost the business in terms of lost future trade? The next time that customer has to go out to eat – or  shop, or purchase whatever service they sell – they’ll remember that employee’s tone of voice and travel down the street to a friendlier competitor.

Compare that to the server at a restaurant where we recently enjoyed dinner. We forgot to bring a discount offer the restaurant had emailed. We mentioned that to the server, who checked with the manager. The server applied the discount, and received a healthy tip as a thank-you. The manager knows we’ll be back, too.

Will some people try to cheat you by using an expired coupon? Of course, but I’ll wager that they represent a comparatively tiny portion of your trade. You’ll hurt your business far more by treating the honest but calendar-challenged folks (or those whose eyes can’t decipher your six-point disclaimer type) badly.

The last example I’ll mention is one of the most common: the on-hold recording that repeatedly tells me how important my call is. About the twelfth time I’ve heard it, I start to have my doubts. If my call was that important, wouldn’t you have answered it by now?

Think the examples I’ve cited are little things that really don’t matter? The signs on your counter, the ironies in your on-hold messages, the way you handle issues such as expired coupons – all send unintended messages to your current and prospective customers. In the worst case, they may even undo everything you try to accomplish by investing in marketing and advertising.