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Dear Vendor: Thank You for @&!XX Me Off!

For years, I have habitually purchased office equipment and supplies from Office Depot. Whenever I needed something, rather than comparison-shopping or thinking carefully about my choices, I would automatically get into my car and drive to their nearby store. I also have other purchasing habits as well. You’ve probably figured out by now that I buy  lot of books, and my habit is to log on to Amazon, place my order, and either read it immediately on my Kindle or, if I prefer a hard copy, get it within two days with free shipping.

It’s probably the same for you, regardless of the store or the category of goods. Once you get into the habit, you tend to stick to it. And, as Charles Duhigg tells us in his fascinating book, The Power of Habit, forward-thinking businesses invest a lot of research into finding ways to change our habits to their benefit. They look for ways to create self-reinforcing habit loops, in which a cue (low on office supplies), triggers a routine (get in car and drive to store), that leads to a reward (customer satisfaction).

Yet, those who live by habits can also die by habits, if they don’t pay attention to the details that can cause their customers to stop acting automatically and take a moment to think for themselves. Another powerful psychological phenomenon is that Bad Is Stronger than Good: and one bad experience (negative reward) can undo a lot of good ones. That’s what happened to me at Office Depot today.

I went to buy ink for my printer, not because I had an immediate need, but because I received a cue in the form of a $15 coupon in the mail towards printer ink. Unthinkingly, I performed my usual routine and drove to the store, expecting my reward (peace of mind of knowing I won’t run out of ink in the middle of a major project). Instead, what I got when I came to the checkout counter was:

“I’m sorry, you can’t use this coupon.”

“Why not?”

“It’s only good for printer ink, not toner.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Ink is liquid, toner is powder.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No.”

“I’ll buy it somewhere else, then.”

So, I came home and activated my other habit loop, which I had never done before for office products, and logged on to Amazon. I found the brand name cheaper even than if I had been able to use the coupon; but, since I was now in a thinking mode, I decided to break another habit and buy a remanufactured cartridge, saving much, much more. Then, I figured while I was on there to look at other office supplies. It never occurred to me that I can also buy pens and paper there, too!

Companies pay the big bucks to the smart people on the front end to figure out how to entice customers, and then forget to take care of the person who actually talks to the live customer. Customer loyalty is the Holy Grail of business, yet it is one of the most fragile assets you can have, and one that retail companies entrust to poorly paid workers who receive little or no customer service training and have zero power to exercise their own judgment.

So I’m not upset with the clerk. Actually, I’m not upset at all, because I now have a new habit which will save me a lot of money; so thank you, Office Depot, for ticking me off! (And thanks for suggesting a topic for today’s blog post)

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