Common Ways Businesses Sabotage the Success of Their Promotions (and What to Do Instead)

Throughout the year, both online and bricks and mortar businesses decide to run a promotion in efforts to attract more customers and move more inventory. And if the deal is good and well-advertised, the tactic can be a very successful one–because, let’s admit it, everyone loves a good deal. But how many of us have been drawn in by an offer too-goodtorefuse, only to experience this? 

If You’re Going to Run a Promotion, No Matter What, Don’t be a Dick!  

Dick wants more customers. Dick decides to run a promotion to get more traffic. He advertises his promotion with a coupon that his customers can download and present in-store to receive a 50% discount on 1 item of their choice. People come to Dick’s store, excited to get great value. But Dick’s staff treat the coupon-wielding customers like subpar citizens.  

Dick’s jilted, would-be-customers leave Dick’s store feeling offended by the mistreatment they received, and they feel the need to rant about about their frustrations to anyone who will listen: in nearby stores, to Dick’s competitors, to coffee shop patrons, to their friends and family, to their dog groomer’s sister, and to their social media accounts and popular online review sites.

Dick’s business starts to collect dust and tumbleweeds. Dick, still clueless about what went sideways, scratches his head in wonderment and decides that it was the advertising-platform’s fault for attracting cheap and demanding customers.  

Lesson learned? Don’t, really don’t, be a Dick. Regardless of what promotion you run, if you’re going to attract attention to yourself, be ready to really shine!  

Why Coupon Wielding, Jilted Customers are So Dangerous 

Let’s consider this conundrum from a customer’s perspective: You’ve created an expectation, promised them great value, and they trusted your ability to follow through on your promise. They took time out of their own day to come to your website or storefront and, instead of meeting their expectations, you made them feel ignored and unvalued. You took those good “kid in a candy store” feelings they had upon arrival to your shop and stomped on them. You made them feel ashamed for wanting to take you up on your discount. And the worst possible feeling you can impart on your prospective customers, or anyone, is the feeling of shame. It results in “raging-bull” customers fired up about venting about you on their social media accounts and review sites because you made them feel like dirt—even though you didn’t mean to. And this happens all too often.  

Avoid Making These Common Mistakes That Can Result in Your Promotions Backfiring

  • Your salespeople aren’t consistently informed about the specifics of your promotion: When customers inquire about your promotion, they receive inconsistent, incomplete or incorrect information from your salespeople.
  • You haven’t taken the time to establish what kind of customer experience you want your team to create: You may have a lot of confidence in your sales team, but that’s no reason to leave your customer service experience up to their discretion.  
  • Your promotional offer is weak: A weak discount can feel insulting to some customers, and poorly paired “value added” bonus items can make your efforts look like you are clearing things out for your benefit, not in the best interest of your customers. 
  • Misleading small print: Customers today are a bit jaded from bait-and-switch tactics and over exaggerated claims. We are always looking for the “yeah, but” small print. Avoid making tantalizing offers that end up being stymied by overly constricting stipulations (e.g.: 10$ towards your next purchase of a 2017 Cadillac). 

3 Real-Life Examples of How Various Businesses Sabotaged Their Promotions (Followed by What to Do Instead) 

Aside from blatantly poor customer service, there are other, more innocuous and less obvious ways that businesses inadvertently sabotage the success of their promotions. Here are 3 real-life examples of all-too-common mistakes many businesses make that result in their promotions backfiring, followed by what your business can do instead to ensure your next promotion is a success (names have been changed to protect both the customers’ and the businesses’ identities):

A RealLife Example of How a Bricks and Mortar Retailer Sabotaged Their Promotion: 

Jennifer saw a coupon advertised for a local shop she was interested in trying, so she downloaded it to her phone and made her way down to the shop one Saturday. Upon arriving, the shop’s staff warmly greeted her before returning their attention to the many other customers in their shop that day. Several minutes passed and customers came and went while Jennifer enjoyed perusing the shop and selecting a few items to buy. When a friendly sales person approached, Jennifer asked “has it been especially busy today?” The salesperson sighed and said “It’s been really busy because we have a sale on and the customers coming in with coupons are super cheap and have been a real pain in the butt,” followed by “how can I help you though?” In that moment, Jennifer felt reluctant to present her own coupon, but she did anyway, almost apologetically, and the rest of the transaction was friendly, albeit awkward for her, the salesperson and probably every other customer within earshot.  

A RealLife Example of How an Online Retailer Sabotaged Their Promotion: 

Upon hearing about a Black Friday sale held by one of her favourite bohemianchic online retailers, Jenna wasted no time combing the website for holiday gift ideas for her friends. Hours later (because shopping is her sport of choice) her shopping cart boasted 22 carefully selected items that she was finally ready to purchase. Hurray! She thought, her holiday shopping was done without having to step foot in a busy mall.  

Jenna entered her shipping and credit card information, rechecked the items in her cart to ensure the proper sizes and quantities were selected, and clicked “Buy Now,” the last step of the transaction. It wasn’t until this point that, instead of congratulating her on her purchase, the menacing red-lettering appeared, stating “We’re sorry, but some of the items in your cart are no longer available.” What? Jenna thought there might be one or two items she’d have to replace in her cart, but no; It just so happened that all 22 items in her cart were sold out!  

A bit panicked, Jenna inspected each product page again, where the items and sizes were showing as available. Thus, she thought there must be a mistake with her cart. So, she called the company and a friendly customer support representative confirmed that each item was indeed sold out, and that the online inventory was not showing updated information yet. It took over 2 days before the website reflected actual availability of inventory. Jenna was pissed! Hours of shopping and anticipation wasted.  

In this example, the problem wasn’t a rude salesperson. In fact, the salesperson who Jenna contacted about her issue using the website was very friendly and accommodating. That said, Jenna’s experience shopping from this online retailer was a negative one because it made her feel like she had wasted her time and cannot trust the information provided by the website.  

A RealLife Example of How an Online Subscription Based Business Sabotaged Their Promotion: 

Deanna was looking for a suitable cloud-based project management software to help her and her small web development team collaborate and manage their workload. After shortlisting 3 potential solutions, she decided to sign up for a free one-month trial of each software to get a better idea of which one would be the ideal fit for her team’s needs.  

Everything was fine until she received her credit card statement at the end of the month, showing that she had been charged over $49.00 for one of the software solutions she was trialing.  

Assuming there was a mistake, she contacted the software provider and explained the incorrect charges. The software provider defended their charges and refused to refund her the $49.00 on the premise that it was her fault for not combing through the terms of agreement before signing up for the trial. Had she done so, she would have found, vague legalese that claims that if she fails to formally cancel her subscription within 29 days of the 30-day trial, she would automatically be charged for a premium $49.00 subscription.  

While the software provider can defend their stance–after all, Deanna is at fault for not combing through the fine print, or setting herself a calendar reminder to cancel before her free trial expired–the software provider could have done a better job at ensuring this information was upfront and more clearly communicated. We’re not sure how online businesses retain customers this way, but we’re pretty confident that anything that risks being perceived as a bait-and-switch technique, and then blaming customers for the confusion, isn’t a successful long-term strategy. It certainly doesn’t build trust. 

What Every Business Can Learn from These 3 Scenarios  

Make Sure That: 

A) Your salespeople are ready and well-informed about your promotion, and committed to the customer experience you want your customers to haveTake time to collaborate on how you want your sales team to respond to even difficult customers. Don’t leave it up to them to figure this out on the fly. That said, give your sales and support people a little leeway to go off script when it makes sense to do so. You want your customers to feel as though their concerns are being personally addressed; not politely dismissed.

B) Your business departments and technical systems are ready and capable of supporting the promotion you are running, including:

  • Being able to handle a potential influx of online or in-store traffic.  
  • An inventory system that reflects actual product availability. 
  • Alternative product suggestions or “back in stock” email notifications. 
  • Accurate shipping costs and delivery times, or well communicated delays. 
  • A way to capture customers contact information even if they aren’t ready to make a purchase. 
  • An inbound marketing campaign to keep in touch with customers and encourage their return. 
  • A loyalty program to encourage retention. 

C) You are being very clear and upfront about your promotions, free-trials, and discounted offersDon’t be vague, and don’t hide auto-renewal information in your small print. If you insist on keeping your auto-renewal model, make this clear upfront and send an email approaching the auto-renewal date to forewarn customers. Don’t do anything to break their trust or take advantage of their forgetfulness.

  • If you’re going to include stipulations in your offer, such as free shipping when you purchase $50 or more, make sure it’s communicated clearly, upfront, and seems fair from your customers’ perspective. 

Key Tactics Your Business Can Use to Ensure Your Promotions are a Success 

Apply the following key tactics to your next promotion to result in attracting and converting more customers who are willing to return and make regular-priced purchases from you in the future:

Successful Promotion Tips for Bricks and Mortar Businesses: 

  • Prior to launching a promotion of any kind, get your sales people (anyone who interacts with your customers) together to inform them about the details of your promotion, and most importantly, to outline the customer experience you wish your business to create: A good starting point is to pose the question: “How do we want our customers to feel when they shop from us?” And then, “What will we do to ensure this?” Consider that involving your sales team in the customer-service-model design process will better ensure that your salespeople adopt the new approach, versus you telling them what to say and do. 
  • Be ready to shine: Make sure your shop is clean, stocked, well-organized and ready to showcase why shopping with you is a great choice.  
  • If you want items to move: you must create a high perceived value. Put some heart into how everything in your store is showcased, instead of haphazardly displaying last season’s merchandise in bargain bins.  
  • Be nice: Remember how we suggested getting your salespeople involved in developing your customer service approach? Do it! And remember to develop your approach around how you want your customers to feel when they shop with you. Such considerations will give you and your team clear insight on the steps to take to ensure a consistently positive customer experience–even with the occasional, especially difficult customers. 
  • Consider implementing a loyalty rewards program: whereby your customers can earn and rack-up points on every purchase they make which can later be redeemed on future perks or purchases, such as the one offered in-store and online by Sephora:
Sephora Promotions
(Source: Sephora |
  • If your business is service oriented: such as an automotive shop, for example, your loyalty program points can be used for future maintenance services such as oil changes and tire rotations.  

Successful Promotion Tips for Online Retailers: 

  • Make sure the details of your promotion are clearly communicated and prominently displayed: Make sure customers are clear on what merchandise is included and excluded from your sale before each item is added to their cart.  
  • Make sure your online inventory is promptly updated: to reflect what is in-stock before items are added to cart. 
  • Make sure shipping information is easy to find: and if you don’t ship Internationally, communicate this upfront; not upon checkout. 
  • If an item a customer wants is out of stock, but may be restocked in the near future: consider offering your customers the option of being emailed when the product becomes available again. Here’s a great example of how this is done by Canadian company, DECIEM: 
DECIEM's Product Promotion
(Source: DECIEM |
  • Otherwise, consider implementing a feature that presents alternative product suggestions such as “You May Also Like the way Reebok does: 
Reebok's Promotion
(Source: Reebok |’s%2520Reebok%2520CrossFit%2520Nano%25207)
  • Make sure your website, or at least your shopping cart, is secure: and displays security symbols (especially if you’re a smaller, independent retailer). 
  • Make sure your transaction process is clear and without obstacles: Offer more ways to pay, a clear area to enter promo codes, and display shipping costs and taxes early on in the transaction. 
  • Consider offering package tracking: and more than one shipping option. 
  • Consider offering a gift-wrapped option: (and sending receipts to purchasers instead of packaging it with the parcel intended as a gift) for customers who want the purchased item delivered directly to another recipient.  
  • Be clear about your return and refund policy: Make sure it’s easy to find and fair. Consider that for online shoppers, an easy return and refund policy removes a big barrier to buying from you.  
  • Consider implementing a loyalty program: that rewards your customers for every regularly-priced purchase they make.  
  • Think like Old Navy: Old Navy and its retail partners seasonally run a promotion that rewards customers with “Super Cash” when they spend $25 dollars or more. The Super Cash can be used towards future online and in-store purchases within a specific time frame. It’s a clever tactic that rewards customers and encourages them to return to shop for more:
Old Navy Promotion
(Source: Old Navy |

Successful Promotion Tips for Businesses that Offer SaaS or Subscriptions: 

  • If you offer a free or discounted trial, do just that: Don’t automatically enroll your trial-users if they don’t cancel in time. But if you insist on auto-renewals, at the very least, have the courtesy to send a warning email before charging them. Consider that the short-term gain of charging an unsuspecting customer is not a good tactic. Doing so will only risk breaking their trust and turning them away from ever using or recommending your product. 
  • Make your free trial easy to sign-up for: Check out this example from popular Project Management Solution, Basecamp: 

    Basecamp's Promotion
    (Source: Basecamp |

Followed by this friendly free-trial sign up confirmation pop-up: 

Basecamp's Free Trial Subscription Confirmation Pop-Up
(Source: Basecamp |
  • When a new customer signs up for trial, follow-up with an email: outlining features you want them to check out, and tips on how to use your product. Point them to your FAQ section and welcome them to contact your support team if they have any questions during their trial. Basically, treat them as well as you would paying customers.  
  • Implement an easy-onboarding process: Consider offering trial-users an early sign-up discount or bonus. The bonus could be an enhanced feature, a free, out-of-the-box integration, an extra user seat, or free training for enterprise users. 
  • Implement a solid email marketing plan: that reaches out to your new users with helpful tips and information to encourage their adoption of your product and encourage continued use. 

Enlist the Help of Marketing Professionals  

We know there are a lot of moving parts to running a business and launching a successful promotion. And running the occasional promotion can be a great way to attract new customers. Just don’t forget to approach every promotion with a long-term customer retention strategy in mind too. We hope you’ll consider these tips useful when planning your next promotion.  

If you’d like help ensuring your promotions are a success, or would like to learn other ways we can help your business grow by attracting, converting and retaining more customers, give us a call at McAllister Marketing. We’re an online marketing team that specializes in consumer based marketing strategies for small to mid-sized businesses that deliver ROI and build brand awareness.  

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