Lawn-care company TruGreen fired me as one of its customers last week, and I thought the experience might be illustrative to other businesses on how successful marketing has more to do with operations than it does with creative ideas.

I'd been a customer for more than 10 years, paying at the "everything including the kitchen sink" level for regular lawn treatments. I had no idea why my grass needed holes punched in it every spring, or why a guy with a long hose showed up fairly regularly to spray everything, but I trusted the experts. There'd be a doorknob hanger after every visit that detailed the health of everything growing outside my home, which like most other consumers I rarely reviewed, since long ago I'd put the deal on automatic payment so TruGreen just charged me whatever it wanted. I paid it without any conscious thought.

Only it turns out TruGreen didn't carry my auto-pay information forward into 2011, which meant that a treatment for somethingoranother I got shortly thereafter wasn't paid for (that doorknob hanger I ignored was an invoice, not just a helpful note). My phone rang last Friday with a call from a collection agency.

"I'm calling from TruGreen and there's the matter of an outstanding invoice of $76.40 that you need to take care of right now,” the guy told me (my approximate recollection). I asked him to explain what was going on and he didn't have much of an answer, so I told him he was scamming me and there was no way I was giving him anything. When I called TruGreen a very nice person told me about their mix-up on my auto-pay deal. She made no effort to reinstate it.

So I just got fired by TruGreen, didn't I?

This made me think about the nature of business relationships, and the value of routine versus conscious choice. I went back to my records and looked at what I’d spent with TruGreen in 2010 and practically gave myself a heart attack; the cost/benefit ratio for spending all that money was utterly opaque to me. Would I have really kept spending had the company not fired me? Conventional Wisdom today would suggest that it should have been communicating with me far more apparently and regularly -- engaging in an ongoing conversation with me about my lawn -- so I could have constantly re-upped my commitment to our relationship.

Here's where I come out on it:

  • Routine trumps choice. Habit is a powerful force, and in an increasingly complex world requires us to search, think, and decide on far too many subjects (many of which are beyond our avowed interests, let alone our qualifications). So brands that can simplify and reassure are going to succeed better, more often, and more consistently than those that demand our repeat attention. TruGreen had me on a subscription that meant I woke up and went to sleep each night as a customer, by definition, and it should have done everything it could to maintain this consistency. Could other brands emulate such arrangements, even those that aren't necessarily related to service (can you service-itize your product?).
  • Don't let your customers be stupid. Routines are great, but if they mean your customers don't know what they're getting, you're just waiting to be found out (and it won't be pretty). Having a subscription isn't the same thing as being brain dead, and it was TruGreen's challenge to inform me in ways that were interesting and relevant. I have no idea what my lawn would look like without its treatments, nor why one application wasn't enough. I didn't need a conversation with the brand; I just needed to know what I was getting. Doorknob hangers didn't cut it.
  • Where was my discount? TruGreen pulled a Comcast on me by taking me for granted, and it included charging me full price while likely offering deals to new buyers. For that matter, since my lifetime value should have been infinite by now, why wasn't I paying less than new, potential shortimer customers? Marketing and operational expenses are more alike than not these days, so shouldn't TruGreen have come up with financial ways to make my customer routine all but unbreakable?

It could have come out so differently. Somebody at TruGreen could have caught the problem before blithely handing my name to its collection agency (I guarantee you I'm not the only honoree in this contest) and reached out to me as a customer, not a deadbeat. Its operations were far more important than any marketing nonsense it could have conceived and, in this instance, it neglected them entirely.

It's just a shame that TruGreen thought so little of my patronage that it let a billing problem of its own making pass unnoticed through the alimentary canal of its operations to a collector who was authorized to crap all over me. That's bad marketing, and it's bad business.

(Image credit: TruGreen logo)

Image by: mtsofan

Original Post: http://www.dimbulb.net/my_weblog/2011/04/we-dont-want-your-business.html