My CEM Birthday Experience

Birthday cakeI am not going to reveal my actual birthday date, but I will share with you a very specific kind of customer experience: corporate birthday congratulation emails.

We all get spammed, but is there a worse moment to get meaningless emails burying the personal messages from people we really care about just on our birthday? Hardly…

Does that mean that companies should just stop sending out birthday greetings? Depends. Let’s see how a birthday can be used to tighten bonds with a customer rather than annoying him or her.

Using common sense is always good advice, but it is a scarce resource.  In real life we have many functional acquaintances, some friends and a few “best friends” relationships. Our customer–company relationships are not that different.

1. Functional Acquaintances

I don’t expect anything from “functional acquaintances” on my birthday. They don’t even know the date. If a company forced me to reveal my birth date during an obscure sign-up process they should certainly not harass me with their knowledge.

There is only one exception: people sometimes want to convert a functional relationship into a friendship. They can use the birthday to do something unexpected. They may show up with a cool gift. Perhaps not very personal, not expensive, but something that catches my attention and good will.

For relationship marketing this means: don’t go empty-handed to a birthday party to which you haven’t been invited! Nobody wants solicitors there. If you want to win over someone on his birthday, be creative.  Just pushing a few miles into an empty frequent flyer account is counterproductive, the “I want to be your friend” message needs to be a real surprise.

Best practice example:

Years ago a local music store invited me to a concert of an alternative band I had bought a couple of CDs from. Wow! I didn’t expect that and I liked it. I still remember them, and I feel sorry that those good guys went under when iTunes and MP3 took over the music business. 

2. Normal friends

These guys just follow socially accepted patterns – a call, a modest gift to express that interest in the relationship remains intact.

For relationship marketing this means that it’s okay to greet your relatively frequent, medium value customer. A few miles may be fine, a discount voucher for the next purchase will be thankfully accepted. But again, they will not change the relationship for better unless you do something unexpected.

Best practice example:

A local, unaffiliated hotel where I happened to be on my birthday during a business trip invited me for dinner any day I preferred at their exclusive rooftop garden restaurant. Up there, I got VIP treatment. A perfect birthday experience, so much better than all the boring fruit baskets I received over the years, none of which I remember individually (except one with rotten apples at an international chain’s five star hotel in London). For sure, that VIP dinner experience created much stronger loyalty ties than all the SPGs and Priority Clubs…

3. Best friends

They don’t need an invitation. They are always welcome. They know the birthday date by heart and come with very personal words or gifts.

Top tier loyalty program members consider the corresponding companies an important part of their life. Like “best friends”.

Best practice example:

Interestingly, I have no personal story to tell about this category!! I never got anything outstanding from the companies I am spending most time and money with. They are just passionless CRM Monsters. They are making merits to get downgraded in my mind from “best friend” to “functional acquaintance” at the earliest opportunity.

Come on – you really know your best customers very well; your CRM database is full of information! Use the birthday to propose them something they won’t forget. If a customer had a recent complaint, have a VP call him with a real fix for that, plus a present.  

Back to my actual birthday. What did I actually receive?

Most messages were meaningless congratulations, which I marked as spam so that my email client will filter out future messages coming from that server (to you pretend THAT?).

But ONE company (“normal friends” category) did a good job: I loved the unconditional, asterisk-free 50% discount certificate I got from NH Hotels, the Spanish hotel group. It was a simple, honest, no strings attached offer: it worked with any discounted fare, had no blackout dates and I could combine it with other discounts and points from the NH World loyalty program (also one of the most honest hotel loyalty programs in the industry). I already used it. I’ll come back, NH!

The rest was pretty uncool.  The worst was Lufthansa – a textbook example of how a discount coupon should NOT look like: if I didn’t misunderstand all the disclaimers, asterisks and footnotes, I believe they offered me a 40 euros discount certificate for long haul flights, under the condition of first booking another flight during the following five days (!), which would then generate a coupon which I would have to apply to a long haul flight as long as I booked it until August and flew it before January, or something messy like this.

Lufthansa, please do yourself a favor: if you do not want a customer to use a discount, be honest and don’t advertise it!

And yes, I got also a birthday greeting from some of my “best friend”, companies in which I am an elite tier loyalty program member. One of them is my home player, Iberia. Actually I didn’t expect much: they are routinely proving that they don’t have the right management team to deal elegantly with their “highly valued” top tier customers.

Their birthday congratulation was the typical grey unpassionate Iberia style: just a boring message, nothing cool, nothing personal, nothing stimulating attached to it.

A “best friend” wouldn’t do that.

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2 Responses to My CEM Birthday Experience

  1. This is a very good view of some best practices regrding this aways-cotroversial tactic. As you observe, comon sense (that most un-common virtue) sould be the guide to using any CRM tacic. Individual relevance and appropriate offers or gifts – driven by a good understanding of the customer’s preferences, behavior, current and potential value – should always be the test of any loyaty communication.

  2. Hi, Rainer – Great post! As a “connoisseur” of fine customer service e-mail, I would love to read the birthday e-mail you got from NH Hotels. Would you be willing to share it?

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