I wrote this article a few years ago, before I took over the customer service team for Palo Alto Software. My perspective at the time was as a consumer. Looking back on it now, as the manager of my team, the glaring miss in this company’s story was the lack of training for their staff. Instead of clarifying the win-win benefits (supporting a local charity and getting more customers with a good sale), it appeared they left the interpretation completely on the shoulders of each staff member. Some got it (salesperson #2) and at least one didn’t (salesperson #1). Both left an impression on me, and as far as I’m concerned, the store was lucky. If not for salesperson #2, my experience would have been a lose-lose, and that would have been a shame.

With my team, I see my primary role is to empower them with the knowledge and the tools to handle different scenarios and deal with whatever comes up. This statement wasn’t as true in the beginning for me, but now more and more I embrace its meaning: ask forgiveness, not permission. If I’ve done my role correctly, they will be able to do theirs — provide solutions for our customers. If we have a miss, we can sit down and evaluate what did and didn’t work and think about what other options could be used in the future. It’s ongoing education for all of us.

This is a true story. But the names and certain key words have been removed; I’m not here to complain about a particular store.

An eye-catching advertisement

I like to read the newspaper while I’m eating breakfast (I spend the rest of my day reading online). Last Friday, as I was thumbing through, I saw an ad that caught my eye:

“One-day only! Wear (color) in support of (charity) and get 20% off any item in the store!”

Simple. Easy to understand. Some of the proceeds would go to a worthy cause. And a nice discount. I liked it. I already planned to be near the store location Friday evening; I was going to catch a movie with friends. All I had to do was change what I planned to wear to their chosen color. Hm…

If it had been just another work day, I had a couple of blouses which would have fit the requirement. But I was going out after work. I had planned what I was going to wear, and its main color was black. BUT, it had a small sequin flower in that special, required color. A very small sequin flower. Would it be enough? No way to know until I got there. And I had decided to go.

That was good marketing. It “found” me (they placed their ad in the local paper). It appealed to me (it was simple to do; I didn’t even have to cut out a coupon), and it had a feel-good connection (a charity I supported). I was now adjusting my plans so that I could go to the store first before the movie.

An awkward customer service experience

What happened? That great marketing strategy was almost undone by a salesperson with tunnel vision.

It’s now 6pm on Friday; the promotion will end in a couple of hours. I walk up to a salesperson in the department, mention that I saw the ad, say I realize I’m not wearing A LOT of (color), but wondered if it would be enough?

She could have made a joke (“Well, I’ll probably have to take a picture to show proof!”); she could have rolled her eyes, and then smiled and cheerfully rung up the sale. But the look on her face was clear — I had NOT fulfilled my part of the deal and she felt compelled to make a point about it. As it happened, another woman, wearing a complete outfit in said (color) was walking by. The salesperson grabbed the other woman’s arm, pulled her toward me, and explained that this was how she expected people to look for this promotion!

Not-so-great sales approach. Embarrass the customer into doing what? Running home to put on more (color)? Or running out of the store and down the mall to a competitor? At that moment, option 2 was tempting.

But I’m thicker skinned than that. So I put my items on the counter and she started to ring them up. Because I had bought sets (3 of one item), the computer used a different ‘sale’ price and the 20% discount wasn’t applied. She seemed relieved as she explained there was nothing she could do to change what the computer showed. She couldn’t give me the 20% discount. I’m starting to get irritated, but I have somewhere else to be. I’m deciding on my answer when I hear another voice behind me.

A positive resolution

Salesperson #2 calmly walks up to the register, explaining to #1 that, just because the computer didn’t automatically apply the 20% discount doesn’t mean it can’t, or shouldn’t, be corrected. She then goes on to explain the workaround (put in one item at a time and the 20% discount works beautifully). Finally, #2 reminds #1 that every sign in the department says the discount applies to all items. I love her! At this point I find my voice and half-joke about my small amount of (color) meeting the criteria. Salesperson #2 just smiles. She gets it.

The Ad Worked:
  • I came to the store
  • I acknowledged the ad was the reason I came to the store
  • I found clothes to buy
  • The promotion was ending soon

The moral? Good marketing can be undone if all the people on the front lines haven’t been trained to understand the real purpose of the promotion — to bring more people to the store to increase overall sales. In this case, the store made a sale and the charity received a portion from the sale.  Everyone was happy — except maybe salesperson #1.