Social media case study: It’s not just a brand, it’s a buddy

social media love

I love Home Depot. It’s my favorite store.

I’ve been going to Home Depot for 20 years and have spent untold thousands of dollars on home improvement and landscaping materials. I am a totally loyal customer.

A few months ago, I bought a dozen small bushes for my front yard. About half of them died. The store has a one-year guarantee on its plants so I took a picture of the dead plants (instead of uprooting them and carrying the six dirt balls in my car) and went to the store for a refund.

When I presented my claim to the service clerk I was told that I would have to drive home, dig up the plants and show the evidence before I could get my refund. When I explained that I wasn’t about to make another 40-minute round-trip visit to get the dead plants, the clerk said, “Well, for all we know that could be a picture of your neighbor’s yard.”

This is not a post bitching about Home Depot. It’s a post about the feeling we have when we’re rejected by a favorite company. You see, to me, Home Depot is not just a brand, it’s a buddy. It’s somebody I thought I could trust.

Brand betrayal

fernI felt like my friend was calling me a liar. After all we have been through? The epic kitchen remodeling? The new tile in the bathroom? The rock garden?  After all that, my friend wasn’t about to help me out on $20 worth of plants?

I caught myself actually feeling betrayed.  For decades, I had been loyal to Home Depot … but I wasn’t feeling the love back. I felt kind of sheepish and silly. Why would I expect anything in return …. they were just a big company, right?

And yet, don’t we form these strong relationships with our favorite brands just like we form a friendship?  Friendships don’t happen immediately. It takes a history of small interactions that slowly builds trust, and eventually an emotional bond.

That’s really the amazing opportunity with social media. too. It allows us to make a series of small connections with potential customers that lead to trust and eventually relationships.  That’s why in my books and lectures I emphasize that success on the social web is no longer in the form of B2B or B2C — it’s P2P, Person to Person.

With this experience with Home Depot. I felt it was B2N — Business to Nobody.

Building something better

hydrangeaLet’s rewind the clock and see how this could have been much different. What could Home Depot have done to provide a constant drip, drip, drip of consistent, helpful, small interactions that would have built our “friendship?”

A few years ago, I signed up for the Home Depot Garden Club. Since I buy so much stuff from them I figured I would get some good deals for my loyalty. Turns out it was a huge bust.  All I got were some flyers and useless emails.  Let’s create a plan where a series of small, helpful interactions would lead to loyalty and increased purchases:

  • Home Depot has a record of everything I have ever purchased.  Why wouldn’t they send me email offers based on what I have bought, the season of the year, and the region where I live? They could actually forecast my needs.
  • Even better, wouldn’t it be cool if I received a tweet reminding me to give my bushes a little extra water because of the drought conditions in my area?  Or maybe offer me a free drought-resistant plant that they just introduced?
  • These small interactions could lead me to helpful tips on the Home Depot site. They have nearly 11,000 posts about gardening ideas and yet I probably would not think to go there unless they make an effort to connect with me in a way that would lead me to their blog.
  • Once I arrive at their site, I would like to log-in to a personal area where I can see an inventory of every plant I have bought and reminders of fertilizer and pruning needs.  Why not have a “buy now” button and have my purchase delivered to me the next day or waiting for pick-up at the store?
  • I would like to be invited to submit photos of my landscaping accomplishments. After all that sweaty work, why not show off the results and become inspired by the work of others?
  • Finally, when my bushes die, it would be nice for the customer service agent to ask me if I am a member of the Garden Club, look at my purchase history, confirm that I bought the plants and be empowered to solve my problem on the spot.

You can see how these small, consistent, meaningful interactions would absolutely lead to customer loyalty, word of mouth recommendations, and increased purchases.

So Home Depot, I still love you, even though I feel jilted. I’m hoping you’ll come around. After all, friendships are about second chances, right?

I would love to hear from you in the comment section. What companies are doing a great job providing you with helpful, small interactions?  How are you doing that for your customers … your loyal friends?

Illustrations: Photos from my garden.

All posts

  • I’m wondering how the clerk will know you are not an evil person that dug those dead plants up from your neighbor’s yard, after spraying them with Roundup, just to exploit the loophole and rip them off.

    Great points on the things they could do. I’ve been sorely disappointed as well by the gardening programs from both Home Depot and Lowes. Yet Scott’s asks for my zip code and sends me notices every time I need to fertilize, with the timing tailored to my region. As a customer of both big box stores, it feels like their programs were created just to check the box off so they could move on to other things.

  • billy

    Seems like you should post this to someone who says they are in charge of social media at Home Depot, see what they do? Or Send it to Lowes Social Media people and see what they do to try and become your buddy. Then tell us here what took place.

  • Great story, Mark. We must all remember its the little things that keep our customers coming back. Thanks for reminding us that our customers, who are, after all just like us, want to be treated with respect and “liked” in return.

    Its the same thing in the medical field. One can be the “best” hospital, doctor or whatever, and the moment the customer (patient) feels disrespected we have lost him. That’s where major academic medical centers can often learn something from the smaller community hospitals. People just want to be treated with respect.

  • iancleary

    Hi Mark, I think there are so many companies that don’t really take advantage of the tools we have available that can help automate and personalise some communication with our customers. We talk about 1 to 1 relationships but if you’re a large retail store it’s difficult to get that but you can create the impression of a 1 to 1 relationship by tailoring communication based on your interests, needs and then responding on an individual basis for any enquiries.

    I went to a hairdresser recently (don’t go there as I often as I used to!!!) and I was amazed that they don’t even collect my e-mail address or encourage me to become a fan of their facebook page. They probably have a Facebook page because they were told that they need one but they don’t promote it.

    If they are not getting my e-mail address they are probably are not getting my wife’s e-mail address either. My wife is going to be interested in health, beauty, fashion so they have plenty of great content. They could offer deals through partners and vice versa, they could promote their discounts for slow days, they could show all new hair styles to encourage their readers to come in and try something new.

    Who is my wife going to go to next for her next haircut? The hairdresser that is keeping in touch. The one that is keeping her up to speed on all the trends. The one that is giving me some attention.

    I’ll watch out for other comments because I’d love to hear about companies doing this well. I think they are in short supply!

  • If they (Lowes or Home Depot) are paying attention (the way both “claim” to be), there should be no need to “send” this at all. Just posting should be sufficient. But, something just tells me there will be no attention given to this.

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  • Good job by Scotts! Thanks for the anecdote!

  • I didn’t want this to come across as bitching or using the blog to extort free plants out of Home Depot. I’m not going to pursue their attention because that just distracts from the lesson. Maybe they’ll find me, maybe not, but it’s not that kind f experiment. Thanks Billy and Steve!

  • Totally agree! Thanks Alice!

  • Great example. Sounds like they need you to be their consultant! It would not take much effort to keep in touch with people via email. Thanks Ian!

  • Mark, I was getting ready to blast you until you said “they know my purchase history.” Then I had nothing left but to agree.

    I understand how stores that we all visit would do something like the Home Depot did – if they don’t have a good POS system, and have actually taken the additional 10 second to start to understand their customers (that’s a whole other discussion), then how is a sales clerk going to know that you’ve been this loyal? But this is a case where that was actually not the case.

    I would say it goes all the way back to the training / trainer of this individual sales clerk. They may not know that this wealth of information is available, or have been advised to look it up (as few ‘unfortunately’ will take the lead themselves). With this simple instruction, the Home Depot would have not had this miss-step in the relationship, and likely would have made the exchange, no questions asked.

    In addition, I agree with the social media interaction – but would say that actually goes further than the Home Depot needs to go with 99% of their consumers. But that’s an advocate / engagement discussion, which again is maybe for another time.

    Good points Mark

  • rhonda hurwitz

    Mark, your last bullet point really hit home … i find that in so many businesses, line employees are not empowered to solve your problem. Sure you could complain up the chain of management and get the outcome you want, but how much better to have the employee start with that mindset! I’d rather create goodwill than betrayal, any day.

  • stefankrafft

    It´s interesting and in the same time frightening that companies misses these obvious (for some of us at least…) chances to built trust and loyalty to their costumers. All their marketing efforts comes down to exactly these small chances to interact and strengthen the relation to the brand. It´s all wasted time and money if companies does not take these “micro” touches as the big chance to become a even more important part of your life. It´s a shame. Shape up!

  • I really don’t blame the clerk at all. He was just a function of the culture. In the post i said at first i felt sheepish even expecting reciprocation for loyalty, I mean they don;t know me. But they should. In fact, with technology today, there’s no excuse not to. Thanks Josh!

  • Big cultural change for many companies!! It was not the employee’s fault at all. Thanks for adding your wisdom today Rhonda!

  • 95% of the companies i work with don;t understand what you just said. They are still thinking along the lines of building loyalty through coupons and ads. You still need that — mass advertising still works — but there are new opportunities, too and not knowing about them is like trying to compete with one arm behind your back. Thanks for the great comment!

  • Bravo Mark, what a great post! Your message comes through loud, and clear with lots of love, and loyalty.

    As a loyal Home Depot customer for many years, i have found their employee attention to my needs outstanding. This has not always been the case… Just recently there has been a shift in customer service attentiveness, care, and respect — coming from the store manager’s focus on attentiveness, care, and respect.

    Giving, and returning this attentiveness, care, and respect is simple…

    Each employee who treats me in this way gets an acknowledgment from me, and a call to the manager in which I share my appreication, and delight with the service received..

    My tendency is to do the same with those who share themselves, their time, and their money with me, and the products, and services provided to them.

    After all, we’re all in this together 😉

  • Mark,

    This story, and the examples you provide for a rewrite, combine for a great lesson for B2B marketers too. Not only is gardening a wonderful metaphor for CRM, your purchasing history, opt-in for the club, brand advocacy and expectations provide a great model for most B2B customer relationships. Handle with care.

    Thanks for another smart marketing lesson from (grow). How fitting!

  • Paul Merrill

    Awesome template for the future, Mark. Sadly, however, doing all this stuff right now would be very expensive.

    With time, we can hope that these great ideas will make it to the mainstream of customer service.

  • From a technology point of view, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they don’t actually have your past purchases on file! Yeah, sure, they do… somewhere. But certainly that information is not readily available through their point-of-sale (POS) system.

    Could it be available and all of Mark’s suggestions? Certainly, but it’s not as easy as everyone may think. Let me rephrase that, technology-wise its “easy,” but infrastructure-wise it’s a major undertaking. I would guess 8-figures at least for a large retailer to upgrade to a modern robust POS.

    I always get a kick out of when consumers say, “they should do this in the system” or “they should do that.” In large corporate I.T. organizations, there’s no magic programmer behind the scenes (I’m too busy 😉 ) that can whip up a new change to “the system” like you see in Hollywood movies. It takes real logistics to move forward with technology.

    I know the topic of SM-ROI is a big topic, but often the IT budget to affect such changes isn’t talked about much. As with any business decisions, just because you can do something (with technology), doesn’t mean you should or can afford to.

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  • Trav

    Well…your post is great. Makes me feel like Im watching a fairy tale movie…and then…yeah…I wake up. The end. Yes. Im awake now. Back to reality.

    I don’t think there are any big box companies who offer the type of hand and foot service that you are desiring. It’s a pipe dream to bring to fruition.

    What you are wanting is a mixture of’s purchase tracking so that they can recommend relevant products, $200 a plate waiter or waitress style service, and employees who have photographic like memory so they can remember you and greet you personally each time you walk into the Home Depot.

    lol. Not happening anytime soon. But it’s nice to think about sir.

  • I was just thinking, if you had a store card they could easily check your stats, see if you bought the plants, and more importantly, how loyal you are.

    If you are a regular customer, it would be so easy for them to say “Sure, of course we can sort you out”

    If you didn’t have a store card, fair enough. they can be a little skeptical. But like you say, we sign up for loyalty programes to get some reward. This is a a big FAIL from Home Depot 🙁

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

  • iancleary

    With good technology in place and well trained staff what Mark was looking for wouldn’t be difficult to achieve.

  • This was an incredibly poignant anecdote Mark. Just goes to show how we can invest in our relationships with brands in our heads only to realise we don’t mean as much as we thought. The story reminded me of an old girlfriend !

    I loved your suggestions for how it could have gone. If only that girl-friend of mine had kept a database of all the good things I thought we’d done.

  • Yup, seems like I have heard that somewhere before : )

  • Boy that really is a great analogy for CRM. Leave it to you to make me look smarter than I am!! : ) Thou rocketh.

  • You know, I’m not sure how expensive this stuff would be. Can you imagine what their ad and marketing budget is? Probably do it for a fraction of that. Think of it this way — in 2011 for the first time, TV viewership wen DOWN. Newspaper ad spend has dropped every year for the last 10 years. Maybe it’s time to go where the people are — online. Thanks very much for the thought-provoking response Paul!

  • This is great. I feel like I’m back in my corporate days fighting with the IT department ; )

    We need need more power Scotty!

    I’m giving her all I’ve got Captain!

    But somehow Scotty figures it out. : ) In fact, if they don’t figure out a digital strategy and stay with newspaper flyers they will die.

    I really love this dialogue Frank. Much needed counter-point to my marketing wish list! Thanks!

  • It’s a matter of priority I think. No question it could be done. If Zappos can do it for shoes why can’t Home Depot do it for garden supplies? In fact, they MUST do it for garden supplies. Go digital of die. Thanks for the dissenting view though.

  • Agree Ian.

  • I love this brand and I’m hoping they’ll figure it out! Thanks Matthew!

  • I hear you! There’s probably an app for that : )

  • Trav

    Ohhhhhhhhhhhh…I never knew that Zappos had a physical store location that I could walk into and try shoes on etc… Can you please direct me to the location? I always thought that Zappos was only on the internets……………………………………….which is why they provide such great customer service since it is only in an online or over the phone environment.

    Look, your arguments and points were heard and received well sir. I agree. Customer service in America sucks. But the problem is that for a store the size of Home Depot or Wal-Mart or Target to provide that level of customer service it would require high wages to be paid out and a unrealistic and ridiculous amount of employees to be on the payroll. If there are 300 customers in the local Wal Mart store at one time, should there also be 300 employees there to help? No, that is unrealistic.

    Customers will always have to wait in line for service and they will always have to adhere to the policies that businesses put into effect.

    I have never seen a customer refunded when all they had was just a picture of the defective item. That’s not going to happen sir.

    And the fact of the matter is that we are all just faceless customers in the eyes of Wal Mart and Home Depot. There is no way they can keep up with each of us individually. Amazon and Zappos can make it happen with email captures and cookie tracking, but it is much different in a real world environment.

  • Let’s put it this way. eBay just announced a same-day delivery service. Amazon is working on it too. So, no, customers are not going to have to wait in line. EVERY retail store will need a digital strategy or it will die, including Home Depot and with the amount of technology available, there is no reason they can’t know us individually.

    If Target can figure out that a girl was pregnant before her father ( Home Depot should be able to figure out I bought some bushes. There is no excuse for any retailer to treat me as a faceless customer any more.

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree, but I feel strongly that every major retailer will have to go digital or go home,

  • Travis

    Ok sir.

  • Glad to have helped ; )

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  • HowToMarketToMe

    Wow, I really hope someone from Home Depot is reading this. With all the impressive data tracking technologies out there (like that one company that knew a woman was pregnant before her father did!), wouldn’t it be nice if they were used to actually serve the customer? Here’s hope for second chances in brand love and relationships.

  • Did not think I was so far behind the times!

  • Still love my Depot : )

  • Mark, love the story. I am a maniac when it comes to service experiences. Having created them, improved them, and re-engineered them throughout my career for several companies, I find am hyper-sensitive to just about every interaction with any company. I’m analyzing and critiquing everything and how they could have made it better for me. (You can imagine how much my wife must love that)

    What I’ve learned is that it all comes down to the CEO. The only way service transformations happen is if the CEO puts the vision on the table, and ignores the cost of the single sale (or refund), places the focus on the lifetime value a repeat, loyal customer, and let’s the front-line customer facing employees make decisions in the customers’ favor every time.

    When a supervisor has some coaching, it should take place after the fact, and the employee knows better for the next interaction.

    If you would have brought me that picture, I would have escorted you to the garden center, helped you pick out the new shrubs, offered you some mulch, peat moss, and loaded your car.

    That is the story you should be writing about your Home Depot experience.

    Miss you man, hope to see you soon.

  • That is a customer service fail on the part of Home Depot. Is it possible that you were lying? Sure, but unless there is a clear history of you repeatedly visiting the store to engage in less than ‘wholesome’ activities there is simply no reason for them to have responded that way.

    Superior customer service is one of the easiest ways for a brands to distinguish themselves from their competition. It is something that the big box stores could really work on and use to combat the image of themselves as being large, sterile corporate giants.

    Your ideas about how they could use technology are reasonable, sensible and practical.

  • I had to read this three times to make sure you were actually agreeing with me on something Jeremy!!! : ) Might be a first!

    You are so right. The more I thought about this, the more I realized they got me to join he “Garden Club” to buy my loyalty through coupons. What an old way of thinking. Treating me well will earn my loyalty, not 25 cents off a container of Round-Up.

    On another note, I broke down and added @homedepot to one of the tweets about this article. Nuthin’

  • All they had to do was run my credit card to see what I had purchased. Just did not seem that hard. Oh well. Wonder how Lowe’s would have handled it? Thanks Josh!

  • Samra

    Fantastic points! If only more brands knew how we can consumers think they are a part of our life, and how they usually let us down with poor CRM find engagement at their end. The story is no different in Pakistan really …

  • Lowe’s actually introduced a program like this. Fully online, they track anything from fall flowers to pastel paint you buy from them. I don’t k ow about goo as far as tweeting you reminders, but they do sen you and email and conveniently stored in your online account.

    I have to agree with you. A little out of the box thinking by big comapnies can go a long way. Invest in a social media software that tracks and delivers accordingly an theyll surely seen a return on their investment.

  • Thanks for your kind words!

  • Lowes, huh? Hmmmm…. may need to re-think my approach!

  • This is a near perfect analogy. Love it! When folks engage with us, they expect us to engage back. To listen. To care. When we don’t show trust and loyalty, why should they?

  • Near perfect … I’ll take it! : ) Thanks Claire!

  • that’s funny. you might be right!

  • Kelly

    Hey Mark. We’re really sorry you were disappointed with our return
    policy, but you’ve got some very insightful ideas we’ll pass along to our
    team. Just to clarify, our vendor agreements require us to get the actual
    plants back; but we’re also sharing your thoughts on that with our merchant
    team. All of that said, we really appreciate the feedback, and thanks
    for your loyalty. I do hope we can still be your “Buddy.” -Kelly

  • I think too much attention is being paid to the actual return. Of course that was inconvenient, but as I made clear, this was not meant to be a Home Depot bitch session. It was meant to examine the interesting emotional reaction I had and how feelings of loyalty and friendship extends to brands. The transaction was just the catalyst for the experience. So the bushes are really no big deal but I’m kind of underwhelmed by the whole customer experience, including this response. I’ve probably spent $40,000 at Home Depot over the past few years so the fact that you are checking your vendor agreements seems like a pretty clinical answer. A missed opportunity to be great.

  • I love the concept of “micro” touches. I work with a very large brand that has a huge Facebook fan base of consumers. We work hard to touch as many of them as we can…at least through the Facebook page. Thanks

  • Great post, Mark. Our family business was a retail clothing store and it was astounding what people tried to return. Everything from clothing bought 10 years before to items that weren’t even purchased there! So, it’s not surprising that the policy at Home Depot would require you to bring the actual plants back, as inconvenient as that is. But…here’s the thing: if you have been a customer for many years, spent a lot of money, and never tried to return plants with a photo before, they should have given you a refund asap. Of course, at the clerk level, that info is a huge challenge for an operation as large as Home Depot.
    However, if you instead were doing business with a local, privately owned, garden center, the scenario could have been a lot different.

  • Lynn

    You may not know how retail works. If there is a return in order to get credit the store actually in most cases has to return the product to the vendor for credit on their end. Don’t go throwing Home Depot under the bus, they were willing to give you the credit, you would have had to dig them up anyway to replace them. Being a buddy goes both ways, respect their policy and keep the relationship whole and happy.

  • Thanks for adding to the discussion Betsy.

  • There is no one way “retail works” Lynn. I can name five stores that would have issued the return no questions asked. But the main point here is that any business has to recognize and reward loyal customers with the same loyalty. Home Depot did not take advantage of the powerful data sitting at their finger tips to react in a progressive and proactive way. No company is going to survive in this environment of big data mining and hyper competition unless they can master that function. Thanks for adding your perspective.

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