Thursday, 7 June, 2007

Guerrilla Sales

Posted in Rants & Raves at 11:19 pm by glpease

It’s been quite a while since my last entry. It’s not that I’ve had nothing to say, though there have been many days when I felt that to be the case. It’s not that I’m really that lazy, or just couldn’t bring myself to overcome inertia long enough to tap out a few hundred words. It’s not that I’ve been so damn busy I haven’t had the time. It’s probably just that nothing has inspired me to write, at least here. Until today. There’s nothing like a good ire-in-the-making to get the juices flowing with enough force to move the mind and the fingers to tap-tap-tapping.

So, here I am, more than a bit nettled. Today, I received a letter from a service to which I have subscribed for a couple years, informing me that they’ve upgraded my service to their “Premier” level, and extolling the vast virtues of all of the great features and benefits (both of them) that I will soon be able to take advantage of. Wow, thanks. Premier! Ain’t I just? That sounds great, right? But, as I read along, since I actually do read these things through, I learn that this wonderful increased benefit will only cost me an extra $4 per month. Um. Thanks?

This company has provided me with good service, and I do appreciate the offer to upgrade. But, it’s not really an offer, is it? In order not to take advantage of this new benefit, I have to call a number and “opt out.” Wait a minute. I didn’t “opt in.” I subscribed to something in good faith, and now, they’re changing the terms of our explicit agreement without even the courtesy of asking me first. It’s like going to the grocery store, putting some things in my trolley, and having the checkout clerk put a few more things in while ringing them up, then explaining that if I don’t want them, even though I should, because they’re really good things, I can sort them out and they’ll be removed from my bill.

I despise guerrilla sales tactics of this sort. Send me a note, offer me something, and let me decide whether or not I want it. That’s fine. That’s sales. I can disregard the offer or accept, as I choose. But, this isn’t like that. Instead, they’re banking on the high probability that their subscribers will read the first paragraph, ignore the rest (the part about the additional charge), and notice nothing unusual until the increased charge appears on their credit card statement. Then, if these same subscribers ignore the details on the CC statement, as so many people do (there are some people who still don’t know how risky that can be), the seller of this subscription gains a substantial increase in their gross revenues, at least for a month or two.

Then, when the subscriber calls to return to the “non Premier” service they’d originally signed up for, a “customer service agent,” which in too many cases is just a fancy word for a magazine salesman, will waste minutes of their time, rattling on about just how valuable this new Premier service is, and that they really should keep it. It’s greater peace of mind, they’ll say. It’s only $4, after all. Isn’t $4 a small price to pay for added peace of mind?

That’s $4 per month. Every month. On top of the $4.99 per month for the non-Premier service. For those who don’t want to break out their calculators, this is about an 80% increase in the originally agreed upon subscription rate.

The letter goes on to explain the new benefits. One is something I find completely useless. The other is the promise that I will receive “Up to $20,000 identity theft insurance at no additional charge.” No additional charge? The way I reckon this, there’s a $4/month additional charge for this service. New York customers really get the shaft, since this insurance is not available to them. So, they get to pay an additional $4/month for a single, arguably useless, additional service…

I’m not complaining about the service this company provides me, or what they’ve provided me in the past. I’m tweaked, however, that they find it completely acceptable to simply put something in my shopping trolley, and make me responsible for doing the work to take it out.

What’s next? Will I go to the petrol pump, only to find that whilst filling my tank, someone has put new windscreen wipers on, and topped up the washer fluid, all for an 80% increased cost? “Oh, you can take them off, and put your old ones back, and we’ll credit you for the new ones. But, you know, it’s really a good idea to have new ones, since it might rain one day, and the old ones might be pretty beat up by then. And, the fluid, well, it’s better than the stuff we sold you last week, and it will be a little difficult to remove it now…” (If you live in New York, you get to pay for the wipers and the washing fluid, but you only get the wipers, since the fluid is not legal there.)

I’m not a lawyer, and have never played one on television, but this strikes me as walking perilously on the razor’s edge of fraud. I’m sure their counsel has ensured that they’re following the letter of the law, and to hell with the spirit of fair play. I’m equally sure that dozens of analysts have determined that the profits they’ll gain through this sort of sales tactic are far greater than if they’d simply asked me, and hundreds of thousands of other subscribers, if they’d choose to sign up for this enhanced service. “Well, it’s already there, and it’s only $4, after all.” Every month.

The only decision I have to make now is whether to simply “opt out” of the aristocratic “Premier” service, returning to the proletariat’s standard version I’d had in the past, or cancel the service completely. I really don’t want to support this sort of thing, and even though the service has been good, I’m sure there’s another that is just as good, and I won’t get my trolley augmented. At least for a while.

There’s a shiny new car parked in front of my house, and the keys have mysteriously appeared in my pocket. I wonder who put it there. I guess I’ll find it when the bill arrives…



  1. Neill said,


    Great post. Aside from the smarmy and sleazy business practice you’re illuminating here, negative-option marketing also really damages a brand. Ask yourself how you *feel* about this company now and I seriously doubt that your good feelings about the service you had been receiving are at the same high watermark as before.

    Personally, I think that negative-option marketing is not tantamount to theft or fraud; it IS theft and fraud. Because most people are deluged with direct mail, they simply can’t read everything that comes their way. More to the point, to cause people to have to read this stuff – or pay not to – is a theft of time. For most knowledge workers, time IS money. Stealing one is stealing the other.

    The only thing I would have wished is that you’d named this company. I really want to steer clear of them. I immediately terminate service from any company that engages in negative-option marketing. Naming names here would be a service.

    Thanks again for the terrific post.

  2. jerry berke said,

    Those of us who recall the arcane hobby of stamp collecting will recall a practice of “approvals”. Once you ordered from a company they would send you additional stamps to”approve” and if you failed to return them in some set space of time, you had purchased them with bill to follow. At age 8 I had a feeling there was something amiss in this arrangement and I soured on stamps-hormones may also have had a role. Keep the good thoughts and the excellent tobac coming.

  3. glpease said,

    Indeed, Jerry. Book clubs and record clubs (I’m dating myself a little with that) operate on a similar principle. The difference is that with the clubs, you know the agreement you’ve made going into it. Here, these scoundrels simply altered the terms of our agreement without consent. Oh, but did they? Perhaps in the very finest of fine print, there’s a clause stating that they reserve the right to “update” my account at whim. I’d look into that if I could find the original agreement, but, since I can not, I simply called the number, and cancelled the “upgrade.” Once my next installment of the service is completed, I’ll probably cancel the whole thing.
    I guess it’s a matter of “Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” Bah.

  4. DaveM said,

    Having first run into such tactics over a decade ago, I made the decision to always stop dealing with any company that tried such a thing. Since, I’ve cancelled subscriptions to magazines and services, as well as credit cards. I find “opt out” marketing to be abhorent, and I won’t support any company that pulls such a stunt.

    Until consumers make “opt out” marketing painful for companies (by tying a surge of cancellation to attempts at opt-out marketing), such tactics will continue to be commonplace.

    I do hope you’ll let us know who the culprit was…I’d personally like to avoid starting a business relationship with a company that uses these tactics.

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