Sunday, January 01, 2006

Staples stumbles

Make no mistake: In future I will be praising companies for good examples of marketing to small business.

But in the meantime, justice demands that we excoriate Staples/Business Depot today.

I'm on their e-mailing list, and I just received an e-mail to fill out a survey on purchasing business forms. My initial thought was "Good for them." Taking time to research your target market is a sign of interest, openness and respect that many small business owners will appreciate.

Then I read the first question.

Where do you buy your business forms? Staples, Staples or Staples?

That does not strike me as a sign of interest or respect. It suggests an unearned sense of entitlement or arrogance - and is guaranteed to annoy or frustrate any customer or prospect who doesn't solely patronize Staples. Why not offer the customer a chance to cite other sources -- especially since there are so many software alternatives that eliminate the need for most preprinted forms?

I bet a lot of customers will abandon the survey right there. At question 1.

That same inflexibility occurs throughout the survey. At several points, the survey asks if you would buy a product if it was similar to your favorite brand at the same price, or if it cost a little more, or if it was a better product. Your choices are "yes" or "no." There's no "maybe" to reflect the complexity of the purchasing process and the variables involved in the decision. (Maybe it's another brand name I'll recognize? Maybe its packaging will look like crap. How can I know if I will buy it based on the vague information you've given me?)

At the end, Staples does a good thing. It offers a chance at a $500 gift card for people who divulge personal information. Building (or filling out) lists is always good. But Staples doesn't say what it will do with the info, thereby restricting what it can do in future.

Then the very last screen on the survey gives the game away. The host of the survey software, Zoomerang, offers you the chance to send your own free survey. It's possible that Staples is paying to conduct this survey, but it sure doesn't look that way. We all know retail margins are tight, but I think most customers expect national retail chains to operate on a more professional plane than Bob's Home Business.

Lessons learned? Honour your prospects. Make your research about their world, not yours. Make your questions reflect their behavior, not your needs. Offer more options, not fewer. And use professional tools that reflect your stature in the marketplace.

Every customer contact counts.

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