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Office Depot loses a customer

I don’t often use my own experiences in my blog, but my recent visit to my local Office Depot store in search of some multipurpose paper for my printer led through the looking glass into a bizarre conversation that shook my confidence about this company that I have bought office supplies from for years. Whether you have employees that interact with your customers in physical stores, over the phone, or in Internet chats and message boards, you might want to pay attention. Every time your employees talk to your customers they can make or break a relationship with your company.


It all started when we needed another box of paper, which we go through rather rapidly at my house. (Six people printing and copying burn through a lot of paper, even though we try to print only what we need to.) I used to highly prefer shopping at Office Depot because it had a big store–so big that it had layouts of office furniture that I relied on when I spent $3000 for my home office a few years back. But a couple of years ago, the store was drastically downsized and the nearby Staples seems spacious by comparison.
My wife has never had any loyalty and she simply dispatches me to whichever store has sent us the best coupons for the purchase of the moment. This time, it was clearly Office Depot, who had mailed us a $10 off coupon for five reams of paper plus another coupon for 20% off the entire purchase–these were asserted to be special coupons for their best customers. (I felt very proud.)
So I trooped off to our local store in Paramus, New Jersey, and walked right over to the paper section, where I could not find the pictured box of five reams of paper. There were single reams for sale, boxes of three reams and ten reams, but no fivers. So, I asked the store employee to help me.
Oh boy. She told me that there were no boxes of five, which I knew to be untrue, because I had purchased them in the past, and because there was a picture of one printed on the coupon I showed her. So she agreed to go look in the back to find a box.

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Whereupon she returned with the five-ream box, just as pictured. That was the good news. The bad news was she told me that I would be charged for five single reams of paper and then could apply the coupon.
I objected, saying that I should get the regular volume price for five reams and then be allowed to apply the coupons. She said no, and went on to say that there were no volume discounts on paper, anyway. I proceeded to spend the next few minutes showing her the prices of single ream, three-ream, and ten-ream boxes so that she understood that, indeed, there are quite steep discounts that ranged up to 1/3 off for ten reams from the single ream price.
But logic was not important here. She insisted that I must buy five single reams before applying the $10 discount. I once again resorted to some simple math to show her that if I did that, I’d probably be getting the five reams at about the everyday price for five reams of paper. She was unmoved.
So, I tried once more. I said, “How about if you give me $20 off your ten-ream box? I’ll buy twice as much paper as I expected to and you can give me the five-ream discount twice.” No dice.
Now, I was surprised, because here I was standing there with coupons sent to Office Depot’s best customers. I had handed this woman the entire sheet so she could tell what it was. This is apparently how she treats the best customers, so woe unto you if some of you less-than-best customers were to approach her.
I asked her if I could speak to someone who could help us with this dispute. She assured me that the prices are set by the corporate office and that no one in the store has any authority to change anything. I questioned her about this, but she was adamant in the lack of any employee power. So, there you have it. Office Depot’s policy seems to be that they don’t even trust their own employees to solve a problem in the store.
Now, I doubt sincerely that this is Office Depot’s policy, but that is what their employee insisted to me more than once. So, I tossed my coupons, drove over to Staples, and bought my paper at a lower price than I would have gotten it at even with the coupons at Office Depot, because Staples had a simple sale underway that required no coupons for special customers.
I had never price-shopped Office Depot against Staples before, but now have the enduring impression that these coupons are a waste of my time and money. And it was so senseless. It didn’t have to end this way. All Office Depot needed to do was to have the product in stock or have employees empowered to help their customers. But in this case, they had neither, so now I will ignore the coupons and head over to Staples first.
In contrast, a few months ago, a Staples employee in their Paramus store went out of his way to involve his manager and help me when a was damaged soon after purchase, but the company that manufactured it had gone out of business. They refunded part of my money because they couldn’t make it right. They didn’t have to, but they did.
The contrast was striking. One company appears to tell its employees to follow the rules, while another tells them to help their customers. What do you tell your employees? And what do you think they hear?

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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