Here’s a Little Story About an Email Marketing Fail

Several months ago, I tried to refinance my car. Specifically, I tried to refinance my car with Capital One.

It didn’t end well.

Today, they sent me an email.

That didn’t end well either.

Here’s the backstory.

The ups and downs of being an independent consultant can often mean that bills get paid a little late sometimes. Especially since get paid late sometimes.

I’m also paying 95% of my adult child’s bills in addition to my own, because for the most part, 18 year-olds cannot support themselves in 2019, even when they do not live with their parent. Prior to that I was doing the single Mom thing, and was slowly becoming convinced that our public school system exists mainly to siphon massive amounts of money out of parents one fee, field trip, and fundraiser at a time.

All of this to say that I’m not always “crushing it” in the financial arena. Maybe you can relate.

In fact, I’ve often joked that knowing exactly which companies you can get away with paying late, and knowing exactly how late you can get away with paying them, is kind of a vital skill if you’re going to be self-employed and living on variable income. It’s definitely a vital skill for raising a kid by yourself, especially if you have one of those months where the car breaks down, the cat gets sick, and your sewage lines back up all at once.

Nevertheless, I tried to do this refinancing thing at all because things had been going really well for quite some time.

I gathered all the mountains of paperwork self-employed people have to cough up when they try to navigate a corporate-employed person’s world.

I got a phone message that told me to call back right away because they had some questions about my documents.

All of this culminated in me standing awkwardly in a Kroger with the phone pressed against my ear while the Capital One lady told me that they couldn’t approve a refinance because, like Marcus Brody in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, my payment history wasn’t up to the challenge.

I don’t know why they wouldn’t have just sent me a denial letter instead of telling me they needed more information only to reject my application, but okay. Especially since I called them back pretty much immediately…thus, Kroger.

Fine. No harm, no foul.

Fast forward. Months later, as in today. I receive this email from Capital One’s Auto Refinancing group.

Receiving this email was vastly more irritating than receiving the initial denial.

It’s a fail for several reasons.

It’s bad segmentation.

When Capital One denied me someone should have moved me off of the list that said “send these people stuff about auto-refinancing offers.” I should have firmly been placed on an entirely different list.

I don’t know what list. Probably the “stop contacting this person with offers” list.

My credit profile has not changed significantly over the course of 8 months. Scrambling around to apply for a refinance a second time is not going to get me a different outcome.

If I were dumb enough to think it would, they might have made me even more angry. I might have thought the email itself was proof that they had taken a second look or something and had come to the conclusion that it was worth making another offer.

Then I’d have wasted time only to be told “no” again. Which would have been disheartening at best.

This isn’t the first time companies have done this. I’ve heard stories about companies that send customers a, “How are you liking your new widget?” email a month after the customer had already returned the widget with a note reading, “This widget kind of sucks.”

The customer’s face when you pull this kind of crap.

It’s not easy when there are thousands of customers, but you still have to put a process in place to get customers moved to the appropriate lists. Forget targeted marketing, at this point we’re just talking about ensuring your brand doesn’t look completely tone-deaf.

The subject line was annoying.

They should have just stuck with “we want to try to lower your APR.” This subject line fails because it makes a huge assumption.

The assumption is, of course, that I am in any way loyal to Capital One.

I am not. I am not at all loyal to this company. I am quite skeptical about it and all the other ginormous banking institutions. I have not forgotten 2008. I have not forgotten how banks got a massive bail out while foreclosure signs continued to spring up across local neighborhoods like weeds in an increasingly sad-looking garden.

They just happened to be the people who sent me an offer at the exact moment I decided that taking out a single credit card was something I needed to do. I wanted to raise my credit score, so I got a credit card.

That was it. It could have been any other credit card offer that landed on my desk at the exact moment I was thinking those thoughts.

Maybe I shouldn’t be insulted by the assumption. I’m sure the person writing it thought they were going for a warm, friendly tone that was supposed to make me feel good about how wonderful I was.

Maybe if the segmentation fail hadn’t irritated me I wouldn’t have even noticed.

Still, there’s a key takeaway there: think twice about making assumptions about your customers. 

Yes, empathy demands that we put ourselves in our customer’s shoes. The old adage about fiction writing applies here: show, don’t tell. That is, use vivid language to describe situations and emotions you imagine your customers being embroiled in.

That is the exact opposite of essentially saying, “You are X.”

It’s akin to another piece of advice I got about writing fiction once. When critiquing my work, a friend said: “Don’t say the character is beautiful. Tell me what the character looks like and let me decide if she’s beautiful or not.”

Same principle. Don’t tell me I’m loyal. If you want to convey that idea, mention I’ve been with you for X months, and let me decide if I’m loyal.

The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

The real cherry on the top of this ridiculous sundae is this: this month my Capital One credit card payment is 10 days late. (They will still get paid this month, but I had to prioritize some other stuff first.)

In fact, Capital One just sent me a “hey, your payment was supposed to be here ten days ago” email yesterday.

I recognize that the auto refinance people are probably working on a different floor than the credit card people. What I don’t understand is why they’re not talking to each other.

Perhaps they are talking to each other, and they’re just not talking to marketing. Marketing has, perhaps, set up some automated process which says: we pulled these people’s credit. So we know they have car loans. So we should totally offer them a refinance every now and then! An automated process would be fine if there hadn’t been a segmentation fail.

In any event, they came off as a little dumb, a little callous, and a lot like I’m just another number to them. Which, of course, I am.

Guess what? Everything you do is marketing.

This event goes so much farther than “email marketing.” This isn’t about a channel.

This is about recognizing that every part of your organization is, on some level, involved in marketing. Every contact I have with your organization, no matter what type of company it is, acts like some form of marketing.

When your customer service agent treats me with respect and does a good job of handling my issues, that’s marketing. When your sales team chooses to be honest with me instead of lying their asses off, that’s marketing. When billing is done correctly, when I’m not overcharged, and when cancelling an order is a quick, smooth, easy process, that’s marketing. When your internal communications run smoothly enough to ensure that customers shouldn’t be pestered with offers they have no use for, that’s marketing.

It has an impact on whether I leave good reviews. It impacts whether I’ll recommend you to my friends. It impacts whether I’ll keep spending money with you, and it even impacts how much I’ll spend.

Marketing to existing customers is still marketing.

What do we call it when the agent is rude, when sales folks are sleaze balls, when billing is underhanded, and when communications break down?

We call that a lot of lost business and the potential for a whole boatload of bad PR.

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