Small Business Marketing Matters:
How Not to Treat Your Customers

- Amanda Cullen

It's said that the brain cannot process a negative. We can prove this with a simple example: Under no circumstance should you think of a pink polar bear. Do not think of a pink polar bear.

Of course, you just thought of a pink polar bear.

At the peril of using negatives, I want to give small businesses advice on how not to treat their customers. In the following examples, imagine how your customers would respond if you tried these bad tactics.

  • Don't offer customers a make-believe loyalty program.
    Any customer can tell that buying six smoothies in a month in exchange for a free one is not a good deal. If you insult their intelligence, customer disloyalty will skyrocket.
    Smoothie make-believe loyalty
  • Don't try to trick customers with sneaky advertising.
    A company named Sneaky Advertising tried to post a spam comment on my blog. I visited their site, and took the screenshot shown below.. There's no such thing as stealthy profits, because no one is fooled by those haphazard advertisements. If you trick customers into viewing your advertisements, two things can happen: they ignore it, or they get angry about it. If your customer gets angry at your advertisement, that means they are really angry at you. Only advertise to your customers in ways they find acceptable.
    Sneaky Advertising doesn't work.
  • Don't act like a large company when you're not.
    Small businesses can offer customers things that large companies cannot. Use your size to your advantage-- don't try to hide it. Large companies have many faults that small businesses must avoid such as unnecessary bureaucracy, unwieldy communication and treating customers like a number.
  • Don't talk negatively.
    Remember the pink polar bear example earlier in this article? Speaking in negatives is not an effective way to communicate your message. Focus more on your strengths than your competitors' weaknesses or jabs. Just try to read the following excerpt from DirecTV's website without focusing on, "NO!" and "ONLY!"
    No! DirecTV

All of these points have something in common and can be summarized in one statement:

Don't treat your customers like they are stupid.

Your customers are smarter than ever, have access to more information than they did a year ago and grow more discerning with every sales pitch they hear. Most importantly: they can tell if you are trying to trick them. I'll leave you with one more example of a company that didn't think highly enough of their customers--

The story starts with Laura Poland, an Indianapolis wedding photographer and close friend. She usually orders business cards and brochures using her professional email address. However, one time she placed an order using her personal email address. stored both of these addresses in their marketing database but didn’t record that the addresses belonged to the same person.’s records showed that Laura was a loyal customer when she used her professional email address. They sent her the following year-end coupon for 25% off any order:

Overnight Prints 25% off

But also had Laura’s personal email address on file. Clearly, the personal email address wasn’t loyal to them. It had only placed one order. In a bid to “activate” this dormant customer, they sent a sweeter deal to the email address that had only ordered once:

Overnight prints 30% off

We wanted to give a chance to respond to Laura’s disappointment at finding her loyalty was not rewarded. Here is the email from their customer service department:

Part of our marketing strategy to reactivate “inactive” customers is to send them different offers, which sometimes offer greater discounts. We also have a Loyalty Program for our top customers, which provide excellent discounts as well. Should your purchases reach the level that qualifies you for the program, we would very much like to invite you to participate.

So it seems that Laura is neither loyal nor disloyal enough. uses their technology to categorize their customers, and it seems some categories are luckier than others.

What lesson should we all learn from this marketing faux pas? (Besides that ordering infrequently from is the best way to score deeper discounts). If a company tries to use technology to “cheat” some customers, the customers will find out. And that will erode their relationship with the company. No one stays loyal to a company that doesn’t show loyalty to them.

Use your marketing budget to treat your customers as the intelligent, discerning people they are. If you do, you will have the opportunity to grow loyalty, sales and referrals.

Want to talk about creating customer experiences? Feel free to give me a call or email me with your questions—513.833.4203 or


Zoo in a Jungle Marketing is a marketing strategy, planning and design company operated by Amanda Cullen. She has years of marketing strategy, planning and design experience, as seen in her portfolio.
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