April 7, 2016

Avoid Unforced Errors



On March 26, I received a direct mail promotional postcard inviting me to "Register Now" for a special promotion with the hotel chain I most frequent. Always eager to rack up extra points, I immediately went online to the registration page specified on the postcard.

404 Error The page you requested cannot be found.

Ugh. I fired up a second web browser and tried the link. Same result. Fingers crossed, I tried again with the third browser on my laptop, but to no avail.

On Twitter I reached out to the hotel chain's social media staff to inquire why I was unable to access the promotion they had enticed me to pursue.  To their credit, they responded fairly quickly:

"You cannot register for this promotion until April 1. Please try the web link at that time."

I imagine hundreds (if not thousands) of loyalty program members went through this same frustrating experience. 

The brand committed an unforced error.

As a young tennis player, my instructors railed about the evils of unforced errors.  What is an unforced error? The common dictionary definition is:
"a missed shot or lost point (as in tennis) that is entirely a result of the player's own blunder and not because of the opponent's skill or effort"
Forced errors are understandable because an opponent plays a shot so good that your return goes out of bounds or you are unable to get to the ball. Your opponent earns the point. Unforced errors are our own fault and should be minimized at all costs. They give away points. We frequently can anticipate them ... and plan to avoid them.

A common unforced error in tennis is the double fault. You hit your first serve hard and miss. Rather than take the same risk on the second serve and lose the point, you opt for a higher percentage serve, one with a greater margin of safety. Doing so gets the ball in play and makes your opponent win the point by hitting a better shot that is a clear winner or forces an error on your part.

The hotel chain committed a major unforced error by inviting us to join a promotion not yet open. Perhaps the bulk rate postcard mailing arrived sooner than planned, but smart organizations anticipate unforced errors and act to avoid them.  To avoid the unforced error, the company could have increased the promotional launch's margin of safety by:
  • Indicating on the promotional postcard that registration would be live on April 1, possibly playing off the April Fools Day connection: "No joke. On April 1, you can start earning bonus points for all your stays through June 30."
  • Instead of producing a 404 web page error for people trying to access the registration page prior to April 1, a more welcoming temporary placeholder could have appeared: "Oops. You got here a bit early. We can't wait to register you for this promotion on April 1. We welcome you to return at that time."
I hate to lose.  But I really hate losing when I essentially beat myself because of unforced errors. We want to make other people beat us, losing because we encountered an opponent with superior skill.

Action item: at an upcoming staff or board meeting, take time to discuss the idea of unforced errors, brainstorm some your organization may be making now,  and then put systems in place to eliminate or minimize them.