Something clearly was in the water a decade ago when the e-commerce marketer Groupon offered a marketing platform linking small business directly to consumers. As an inveterate bargain hunter, I recall being thrilled at being able to get a Groupon entitling me to 50 percent off at many local restaurants. As a marketer, I thought it was a great way for restaurateurs to attract new customers. If there ever were a win/win in marketing, this had to be it.
My mind changed after I had a chat with a restaurant owner who told me that this particular e-commerce model had a dark side. He confessed that his restaurant was losing money serving patrons who were dining at half price not just once, but multiple times. In fact, most of these new customers would not return — regardless of food quality or ambience — unless they had a coupon. He dropped the program soon afterward.
As I noted in my last column, marketing is not just about finding new fish in the sea. It’s also about keeping what you catch. A recent experience I had with Groupon bears out this maxim.
Back in May, I purchased three online marketing courses through Groupon offered by something called Live Marketing Academy. I wanted to see how the products and services from online marketers compared to what was being offered on late-night TV infomercials (which have always had a reputation for dubious veracity). The courses purchased were Introduction to Digital Marketing, Intro to Blogging and Content Marketing, and Intro to Social Media Marketing and Online Reputation Management.
I never got past the log-in. The redemption code on my Groupon voucher would not activate the “continue” button when clicked.
I went back to Groupon’s website and hunted for a phone number to call customer service. To my dismay, it appears that Groupon has axed its live reps and now forces you to use online chat. While this may be OK for millennials or for resolving simple problems, there’s nothing like having direct contact with a person on the other end of the phone when matters get more complex.
When I finally got through to Groupon’s chat agent, he could not help and said I must get in touch with Shaw Academy (dba Live Marketing Academy). To add to my frustration, it turns out Shaw Academy is time zones away in Ireland and did not provide a toll-free number on its website. The best I could do was to send an e-mail.
That I did, and with no reply forthcoming, I decided to use the tools that are available to consumers these days to voice their dissatisfaction when they endure shoddy treatment.
I responded to a follow-up email from Groupon Customer Service and selected “bad” when asked how the site’s chat agent had done. Next, I shared my concerns in the comments space and clicked “send” with the feeling that my missive would end up in a dark hole.
Then I turned to Trustpilot, an online review community that launched a decade ago and boasts more than 32 million reviews of 179,000 businesses in 40 countries. (For an outline of its business model, visit au.trustpilot.com/trust/our-business-model.) I shared my concerns about how Groupon left me up a creek without the proverbial paddle in the hope that other consumers would be forearmed and forewarned.
If I were the teacher giving this course, Groupon and Live Marketing Academy would receive a solid grade of F. Neither had a customer service phone number; Groupon failed to take responsibility and left me to fend for myself, without contacting the service provider; and Shaw Academy failed to respond promptly to my email.
Marketing today is, in many respects, a zero-sum game. In this Digital Age when everyone is a broadcaster, the adage that you live and die by the sword is truer than ever. You must act as if the consumer is always right if you expect anything but a one-time sale and want to keep your reputation from being trashed online.
Some online merchants have learned this lesson well. As a longtime lover of audiobooks, I signed up last year for Amazon’s Audible subscription at a cost of $14.95 per month. While I have been pleased by how easy it is to use, as well as by the quality of the recordings, an audiobook I purchased by a well-regarded author left my head spinning, as it was nearly incoherent to my mind’s eye.
After a quick trip to the Audible website, I learned that if I was dissatisfied with my selection, I could return it, no questions asked, anytime within a year of purchase. Audible’s willingness to ensure complete customer satisfaction reinforced my decision to pay nearly $180 per year — more than I fork over to Netflix, which provides considerably more content.
Another service I patronize is Open Table, a reservation service that awards points for dining at affiliated restaurants. When you collect enough points, you get a cash reward. My problem was that I didn’t know these awards expired if they were not used within a year. To test Open Table’s customer service, I emailed and asked to have my points reinstated. Less than a day later, I received a nice email granting my request.
Not only will I continue to patronize these businesses, but I will sing their praises to all my friends and associates. In the long and short run, having consumers like me market these businesses is a lot more cost-effective than many standard corporate marketing practices.
Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the boards of directors of Boating Writers International and Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS, he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000, and testified more than 30 times before congressional committees.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue.