I just came across a recent story outlining how, in a certain Canadian jurisdiction, a dozen energy companies were fined for deceptive sales practices. A dozen companies. That’s, like, nearly all of ‘em. On the list was one of the two largest firms. Also on the list, several green energy firms with otherwise stellar reputations.
The fines ranged from $15,000 to $50,000. Such low fines are about the lightest possible slap on the wrist, indicating that it wasn’t entirely clear the companies were guilty of anything. And yet those news stories linger and those companies will now live with tainted reputations, especially where today’s information-hungry customer does more and more searching on brand names.
By comparison, there are real corporate atrocities being committed by companies like phone companies, who in Canada have been fined in the 8 and 9 figures for wilfully billing customers for services they didn’t ask for or didn’t receive. A major cable company is now in the news for being the worst Internet “throttler” in the world. They, too, face a heavy and deserved fine in my opinion.
So in the energy cases, do I blame the regulator? Rogue salespeople? Fake salespeople? Nope, nope, and nope.
Until companies in this industry are willing to be as thorough as possible in conventional lead generation methods — especially, leaving no marketing stone unturned in the highly measurable, respectful, permission-based digital media environment — they will be too tempted to continue going door to door.
And the problem here is fourfold. (1) The public begins to associate that behavior with shadiness, thus framing the experience from the beginning. Your “relatively legitimate” version of marketing to people on the doorstep gets blended in with all the others, in the noise. (2) If you do any doorstep selling, then someone will impersonate you in some way, or some homeowner will have a bad memory and accuse you of something. (3) Your own salespeople will go rogue on you in the search for a commission. They’ll mislead consumers. (4) Homeowners merely offended by your presence, or whack jobs with an axe to grind, will hop onto YouTube with some lengthy rant. Regardless of their credibility or lack of it, these videos are popular and tend to rank high in search results.
One energy company in Canada (and no doubt others will follow suit in time) has put a stake in the ground with a steady stream of radio spots about just saying no to the people at the door. (They were one of the ones fined, by the way. It seems all players, including legitimate ones, were caught in a light regulatory sweep while some out-and-out con men are still walking around door to door.) The spots are hilarious. The wife asks the husband how he could ever have been talked into a fixed-price energy contract. He maintains that the salesman seemed very credible, seemed to be with their energy company, and “he had a clipboard!” At the close of the spot, his voice rises into an Abe-Simpson-esque quaver, strange given that he seemed like a much younger man earlier in the spot: “But he had a clipboard!” Ha ha.
That’s working. So there really is no way to fix a reputation problem other than going out and standing up for yourself and creating a good reputation through your track record (and then talking about that).
But there’s one more thing companies can do. It’s to refrain from methods of marketing that annoy people (I call it surplus interruption). The consumer might not care that your version of “annoy” is more ethical than the others’. The search results don’t care that you aren’t responsible for your salesperson “going rogue.” And so on.
There is usually a lot of unharvested fruit out there in the form of untapped online lead generation methods. Maximize those, and it’s amazing how much less you have to do of all that stuff that comes back to bite you in the butt.