Is Your Marketing Poisoning the Well?

I met Joan at a group dinner the other night. When she found out what I did, she said:

The other day I got a call from the local Ford dealership—I had bought my car from them several years ago. They wanted to know if I’d be willing to refer several of my friends to them.

“Refer my friends!” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding! Your dealership behaved very badly towards me twice in the last six months—unethically, even—and despite my complaining about it, I have yet to hear anyone there apologize, or even take responsibility for it.

“In fact, I’ve already told a number of my friends to never do business with you. And you call me and ask me to refer business? Do you know what ‘fat chance’ means?”

Ouch, Mr. Ford Dealer.

In the “olden” days, it was lore that a good customer service story might be retold a dozen times, while a bad customer service story would be told a hundred times or more.

Nowadays: make that a hundred thousand times—or more. And within days. The now-classic example: the United Airlines broken guitar video , which garnered 3 million views in seven days. (It’s a pretty catchy song, if you haven’t heard it).

Reputation Marketing 2.0

Industry after industry has historically made an implicit assumption in their marketing: that the supply of new customers is endless, and endlessly renewable. Don Peppers and Martha Rogers took a head-on shot at this fallacy in their under-appreciated 2005 book "Return on Customer," stating that customers are, in fact, the scarcest resource.

In other words, the very common slash and burn marketing tactics that most companies use to churn through leads—massive emailing, lead culling, indifferent customer service reps—are now poisoning the well.

They were right in 2005, and they’re about 100 times more right in 2009.

How many of the 3,000,000 YouTube views made in one week were of people who were potential customers of United? Existing customers of United? Employees of United? It’s a hard number to calculate, but let’s agree on three things:

  • it’s big
  • it’s bigger than it used to be
  • it’s very not good for United.

Is Your Marketing Poisoning Your Well?

Back to Joan and her local Ford dealer. Can you imagine the impact on that dealerships’ local market if Joan had access to local media? Well guess what, she does. And since all media is local in this age of Craigslist and YouTube, Ford itself could and should be concerned about such things.

The biggest impact of all this bad-news-traveling-faster world is that Darwinian selection can act a lot faster. Businesses using anti-customer tactics are subject to being outed on a massive, nearly real-time basis. Customers can make up their own minds, and increasingly trust surveys show that we trust others like us more than we do nearly all other institutions.

Which means users of classic anti-consumer bad marketing tactics are now more likely to have the gun pointed right back at them.

I’m going to give the Ford dealership a break and not name them by name. But rest assured I’ll send them a link to this blog. They dodged a bullet this time; but bullet-dodging is not a good strategy going forward.

3 replies
  1. John Aberle
    John Aberle says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your article about poisoning the well. Ironically, yesterday I wrote a blog post, "Customer Service Metrics Can Do More Harm than Good," inspired by your Chapter “Killing Trust with Measurements and Rewards,” in Trust-Based Selling

    I was a small business consultant for 40 months for an international consulting firm that used hard sell tactics. While some of their salespeople were excellent, able to close business by committing us to what we could do, others would put us into a position where the job often exploded before we even got one day in. Need I say that this employer was very metrics driven.

    The frustrating thing for the consultants was that we really cared about helping our clients and strove to do a good job – and the company stood behind its work. I had the privilege of going on a few rare occasions to ensure that the client was satisfied when one of our consultants hadn’t had the right skill set.

    I remember one job where the project manager (actually a senior executive filling in) and I had wonderful rapport going. We came back the next morning expecting the job to run for several days if not for the full program only to have the wife terminate the job right then. The previous evening she spoke with friends at the gym. One of the friends had our firm in before while another friend’s spouse had once worked for our company. There was nothing we could do to salvage what our company’s reputation destroyed.

    I was often puzzled by the corporate approach to sales. I too felt it was a slash and burn approach as though the supply of prospects was infinitely renewable.

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Those are some powerful examples, wow.  The shock of doing a fine job and then having the rug pulled completely out from under you because somebody, somewhere chose to do scorched earth sales.  It just sits out there festering, waiting to explode on you even when you’re doing good work.

    Just to be clear on the issue at hand, I remember someone saying to me, "the problem is not hard-sell, it’s wrong sell. If someone really needs what you have and you’re sure of it, you need to get their attention.  The problem comes if it’s all about you."  I think that’s pretty much it; these tactics are mostly aimed solely at self-aggrandizement, and that’s the real sin of it.

  3. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    I think the greatest shame in this whole story is the lost opportunity at the moment Joan expressed her dissatisfaction and disgust on the call–I would assert some masterful empathic listening followed (not too quickly) by, "Is there anything we could do to make this right?" could have turned a marketing horror story into a celebrated success story. Sounds like that’s not what happened. Too bad for Ford and too bad for Joan.


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