Drive revenue with CX

The Perils Of Free

Maxie Schmidt-Subramanian
Principal Analyst
September 3, 2013

With fall coming up, I was reminiscing about my summer. And funnily enough, one of the lower moments had to do with free ice cream. Whole Foods had advertised an “Ice Cream Social” on a Saturday in July — free ice cream from 2 to 5pm. By the time my husband and I managed to squeeze my 8-week-old daughter and one set of grandparents into our car and drive there, it was 4:30pm. But that was still before 5pm, right? Yeah. Unfortunately, when we entered the store, there were no signs of an ice cream social anywhere. Turns out, the store had run out of ice cream earlier. What a bummer! Now all of us had to trudge back into the car without having eaten the ice cream we were all much looking forward to.

Now you might say “stop whining” since the ice cream was free. But here is the thing: Even though we certainly had no right to expect anything in the first place, Whole Foods changed the game by promising something. We were upset because Whole Foods didn’t deliver on its promise. And you know what? Only a few weeks later, it happened all over again! Whole Foods hosted an event in which people could bring back their used toothbrushes and get new ones. Guess what? When we got there, they only had toothbrushes for left-handed people left. Given that left-handed people only represent about 10% of the world’s population that was very disappointing and started to feel like a marketing gimmick.

What can you learn from this? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “free” will result in happy customers. For a great customer experience, you need to meet or exceed customers’ expectations. And that includes the ones you set when you promise something, even something free. So if you are running an event or a promotion to attract new customers or to thank loyal customers for their patronage, don’t raise the bar higher than you can clear it. Put yourself in the shoes of your customers and think about how they will likely perceive your actions. Then use customer experience design and communication to set the right expectations. Whole Foods, for example, should have planned (and communicated) it such that the ice cream social started at 2pm and would end when the ice cream ran out. Maybe they will do that next time. But I wised up and won’t make the effort again to go to Whole Foods. And that is too bad because it is the opposite of what Whole Foods wanted to achieve in the first place.

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