How to completely destroy your customer base with marketing!

SWFThis is a true story of something that happened this week that demonstrated how marketing tasks can backfire.


Well known brand has a relatively new retail store in the local area. The launch about a year ago involved much razzle-dazzle with hot air balloons and girls in promotional t-shirts.  There were lots of special offers and discounts during the launch and immediately post-launch of this branch. They attracted exactly the type of target audience and ideal clients and all was going swimmingly.

Objectives of the Marketing Task

A branch manager decided to send an email to all of his account customers for two reasons. Firstly to ask for feedback from them either positive or negative. Secondly because he wanted to increase sales in that particular store. It later transpired he had been encouraged to do this by Head Office as 80% of the business came from 20% of the customers. Smart logic to look after existing valuable customers. Not so smart to delegate responsibility to someone lacking in the skills, knowledge and support to do it satisfactorily.

Human Error

Unfortunately the email was sent to 500 recipients in a manner where everyone saw the list of email recipients. This was a case of putting all addresses into the To: field rather than in the BCC: field. A basic and simple mistake to make.

What Happened Next

A series of emails exploded from disgruntled recipients mentioning breach of their data under Data Protection Act and the Privacy of Electronic Communications Act.  Unfortunately people replying to the emails would hit the ‘reply all’ function so all of the 500 recipients were getting all of the email trail. The branch manager was clearly out of control and sent an apology email explaining the wrong button was pressed but by that time the email list was calling for compensation, discounts, and venting their anger.


Now we all know that these things happen. Or do they?  This was completely preventable.

You wouldn’t give all staff access to the company bank account would you?

It never ceases to amaze me that companies will put in all sorts of controls to protect the company assets. Things such as copyright, intellectual property rights. Then there are the enormous amounts of financial controls in place such as cheque signatories, who can sign off expenses, who can make decisions on pricing and discounts, or credit limits or who hold the keys to the building. These are just a few examples but I am sure you can think of all the other controls you would expect to find that protect a company from financial loss.

Where is the control for bulk email marketing?

Quick calculation says that if the average spend of these customers per year was £20k x 500 = £10m.  20% of upset customers equals a loss of £2m.  What is the marketing budget likely to have to be to replace those customers and deliver the same level of profit?  Remember this was a local branch so the geographical target audience is restricted by territory and fairly small population.

Sympathy for the mistake?

Whilst I have sympathy for the branch manager trying to do what he was asked to do I am afraid I don’t have much sympathy for the damage to the brand locally. I have an impression of this large corporate business now that it does not care very much for their employees if it puts them under unfair pressure to deliver objectives without the right level of skill, support, training, knowledge or tools.

And furthermore I have the impression now that they cannot care about their end customers very much if they are so happy to delegate responsibility like this on a whim without consideration for the things that can go wrong, how to mitigate any risks, how to portray their company in the best light, and essentially deliver a good customer experience.

Sales are from marketing, listening, and delivering service not through spamming!

It must have taken a considerable amount of effort, time and money to get the branch to a successful local position yet the desire to increase sales was seemingly more important than caring enough to treat the customer base with the respect.

Is this a case of encouraging the wrong behaviour?

I would be really interested to know what this branch managers targets were and whether their was one target that was more dominant than any others.  I am placing a bet here that the sales target was responsible for driving the wrong behaviour. Pressure and panic can very easily lead to not asking for help or checking you know what you are doing.

What good are skills at Head Office if they are not offering support at the coal face?

A quick search online returns results a raft of vacancies at head office calling for high quality skill and experience but what good is that if the skills are not directed in the appropriate areas of the business?  This branch manager was clearly out on a limb. If he was a ‘rogue employee’ then controls were lacking. If he was simply trying his best to achieve a target then it’s the leadership that was lacking.

You can tell I have quite strong opinions on this but I really do find it incredible that mistakes like this can happen. It’s a smack in the face for the value that some companies put on the value of the customer base. In a recession it’s even more important than ever to have a brand built on the qualities you regularly deliver against objectives that are set. It undoes so much hard work to get remembered for something negative over and above the many positive experiences.

Final thoughts ..

For what it’s worth I did call the branch manager and offer free advice and support. I have recommended some reputable and free or low cost bulk emailing tools and customer survey tools for future use, talked him through the key points with email marketing and conducting satisfaction surveys.  I didn’t do this to get work but simply to help someone out who I thought had got themselves in a bit of a sticky situation.

What would you have done? And are mistakes like this preventable?




  • Hudson Accountants

    I agree that proper systems and training should be in place to prevent “accidents” like this happening.

    Not many people seem to understand email etiquette. We all complain about spam and worry about viruses but, most weeks, my personal email address is included on a fairly public list instead of using the BCC function.

    Perhaps we should all look to what we do ourselves first.

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