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Staples Upselling Email – You’re doing it wrong.

April 26, 2012

Because I work in the relational marketing communications business I usually applaud every step forward, no matter how small, of a company that wants to leverage their customer knowledge and CRM data to better serve their customers.

The key word in there is serve.

It takes a bit of work to put together a personalised email to a customer, it’s even more work to actually use data from an operational database with names, addresses, purchases, product categories, etc. to make recommendations and upsell a client on something he needs. It’s all worthwhile when, in the end, the customer benefits from the upselling email suggestions made in a meaningful way.

A self-serving, half-assed application that uses knowledge to make the wrong suggestions, however, is not appreciated by anyone. The line between those two applications is a fine one, but there are some clues.

I received this upselling email today from Staples (You should know that I screenshot, edited it and shrunk it to take up less space on the blog, so there’s some stuff out of whack that’s not their fault) :

It’s a pretty typical, data driven upselling email, something we ourselves might have put together if Staples was one of our customers. Any agency can design and produce something similar. The impressive part is that the products featured in this email are different from one person to another, in theory according to their purchasing habits, the products most recently purchased and analysis of similar products purchased by other customers.

Then it starts with “Dear Staples Customer”. Uh-oh.

You can’t tell me that you spent thousands of dollars on an analytics engine, but you can’t find my first name in there. It’s Alex, or Mr. Nuta.

It goes on to show me my recent purchase: A Lexmark toner cartridge for the Lexmark 360dn at the office. (Also bought from Staples a while ago) Actually the purchase was for a bunch of general office supplies. The toner cartridge was the most expensive item on the list. I think I have an idea how they went about selecting the product showcased…

Then, it gets weird. Recommended products:

1. Foam cups.

Even if I wasn’t mildly pro-environment, this would make no sense. I have never bought foam cups from Staples, not any coffee-making equipment. I didn’t buy any kitchen supplies, and it has nothing to do with the toner cartridge. Just because someone bought foam cups at the same time as this exact toner cartridge doesn’t mean the two are related in any way.

2. HP DDS backup tape cartridges

Forgetting for a moment that I bought a 1 TB drive a few months ago for backups from Staples, and I’ve never bought a single tape, or tape drive ever, what is the connection with the cartridge, or the cups? Again, I presume someone who bought 20 toner cartriges also bought a bunch of tapes and the engine made a link where there should be none.

3. 2-hole punch

I don’t even know what a 2 hole punch is for, honestly. Must be something financial. Maybe it’s linked to the 3 hole punch binders I bought, or maybe it was linked to the plain paper I bought in the same shipment as the toner. I’m scratching my head on this one too.

4. Lexmark E360dn Laser Printer.

Finally! A recommendation that makes perfect sense. Since I’m buying a toner cartridge for an E360dn laser printer, naturally I should also buy an E360dn laser printer to go with it. Unfortunately, I already have one. Wait… What other reason would I have to buy a toner cartridge? Maybe I’m stocking up on toner cartridges ahead of time, so that when I can afford to buy the printer I won’t be stuck without toner. Ever.

This is the sort of thing that should always have an exclusion rule. On toner and ink cartridges, never recommend the machine they go in. On buying a machine, always recommend the cartridges that go in it, even months down the line. Why not show me some of the Brother inkjet cartridges I keep buying every 3-4 months instead? I’m always running out of those!

5. Brother 12mm label tape

Right brand. Wrong product. Though, in all honesty, by now I’m starting to question the relevance of the whole email. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. It has nothing to do with anything I buy or have bought. Who are these people who buy such disparate and seeming irrelevant things all at one time? Why don’t you recommend some paper or something? That’s at least useful in conjunction with toner.

6. 3″x3″ Post-its

I just bought some. Just this week. From Staples. I never buy 3″x3″. Always 4″x6″. It’s discouraging, really. Maybe it’s cause it came in a different shipment from the toner cartridge. I don’t really believe that. Just making excuses at this point.

Not much more to say about it… Oh wait. At the bottom there… make the green choice! Apparently I ought to stop buying foam cups.

I give up. I can’t applaud this. All the things they’re doing are right in theory, but the end result is wrong. They’re spending all the money to communicate, to analyse and generate this awesome event-driven marketing initiative, and they’re doing it wrong.

Not only do I know for a fact that I can do better without even trying, but I feel cheated out of my Staples experience.

This was a fast and loose email, put together quickly and without much consideration, probably by in-house IT rather than a relational marketing agency. Processes without intelligence, communications without strategy or scenario. The goal is transparent: Buy more stuff, whoever you are! They don’t even know my name, and it’s right in front of them.

The opportunity is there to do so much better, and become a partner with customers by putting together systems that work for them as well as the corporation. Win-Win. The difference between the two isn’t even a matter of cost. It’s a matter of will.

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    Paul Apr 26, 2012

    You might have something there when you say it was the IT people who put the data together and not the marketing people. I see this all the time, especially when something is complicated and the marketing people have not had the time to figure out how it works (or would rather spend their time elsewhere), so just get the IT guys to do it. Sometimes it works. Sometimes.

    Some of these items might be items Staples is trying to unload cheap, or even a kind of “hey, did you know we sell these too?” message. But overall you are right, the message is not clear here; it’s a bit of a mismatch on what they think you should buy.

    Neil Apr 27, 2012

    Totally agree. As much as I hate ads as the next person, i’ve never been hostile to picking up a flyer that i’m genuinely intrigued by (happens a lot at Home Depot…) or even clicking on a browser ad that contains something i might find useful. The key i think, is, like Amazon does it, certain customer “types” “also bought….”. That’s the kind of information they should be thinking about analyzing. I’ve bought a few books i would have never bought had it not been for the “also bought….” link in Amazon.

    Alex Nuta Apr 28, 2012

    Paul, when you’re unloading stock, you should not take a personalised approach. I receive emails like that too from Staples and Best Buy: “Great deals on this week”. Those are great too, and easily recognizable for what they are. I appreciate them.

    But when you show me my last purchase, and imply that the products on offer are somehow connected (“People who bought also bought “) they’d better be connected, even tenuously. People don’t have an inference engine, they use logic. (well, some of them do) I don’t care how many people bought foam cups at the same time as a toner cartridge, it makes no sense. There are a hundred different ways to make this better. Stay within a category, use past operational history to select items connected to those I usually buy. I wouldn’t even showcase the product. It’s intrusive, and some people react poorly to the realisation that their every purchase is logged, tagged, and connected to them specifically.

    By all means, send an email with 6 products on offer that are related to my purchases. I bought Post-Its. What about some pens? I bought 3 hole punch binders, what about a 3-hole punch? I bought copy paper, what about a stapler? All these products would have made more sense, but it requires a classification of product categories that they likely haven’t done. Instead they programmed a flawed routine and just let it rip. Hence the motivation for my post.

    Neil, a relevant ad will not only be clicked many times more, acted on many times more, but will also leave a very different impression from a typical “spam”. We only remember negatively the ads we don’t care about, which aren’t relevant to us, but which we see repeatedly despite them being unwanted. In extreme cases this can actually harm goodwill towards the brand and cause a negative reaction in the market.

    We don’t remember the ads we clicked on as offensive. As a marketer I would rather not sollicit someone who I know will not want to see the ad focusing my advertising dollars instead on people with at least a chance of being interested in the message. Relevance is everything. The point of this post was to say “Staples have made a large investment which they are grossly misusing, and the difference between doing it wrong and doing it right isn’t even that big.”

    The reason Amazon’s recommendation engine works so much better is that they have classified every product into a category and sub-category, and they restrain their recommendations to products that are actually similar. This approach would work perfectly for Staples too, though it may mean, in some cases, that instead of 6 products, you only see 3, for example. This is a necessary sacrifice. Relevance is more important than quantity, and an irrelevant communication does more than “not sell”. It harms the relationship and trust that may have been built with your customer. And that is not worth the pitiful incremental sales of foam cups they have have gotten as a result of the email.


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