As a consumer, nothing makes me more frustrated than “bait and switch” tactics from businesses. The most recent example of my ire was last year; I was watching television and saw an Outback Steakhouse commercial advertising steak and lobster for only $19.99. The food looked awesome; I really like lobster and I really, really love steak, plus, I was a recent recipient of an Outback Steakhouse gift card. Perfect! The next day, as my wife and I sat down in the restaurant to enjoy two lobster and steak dinners, we were informed by the waitress that the restaurant was “all out” of lobster, so the special we specifically came to the restaurant to enjoy was unavailable. Well, the dish was an attractive menu option for a reasonable price, maybe they legitimately ran out of lobster? It’s a believable explanation, but we arrived at the restaurant before 5 p.m. on a Friday evening. It’s not like we arrived late in the evening, at the tail-end of a holiday weekend, in that case it would be completely understandable for a product to be sold out.
As a loyal customer, I felt completely duped and frustrated. They hadn’t even bothered to remove the print advertisements from the tables! Was this a clear case of Outback Steakhouse using bait and switch tactics to attract me as a customer? I’ll never know. But it didn’t even matter whether it was, or wasn’t. I had a clear suspicion and I felt baited and switched. The damage was done.
The reality that faces many small-businesses in today’s economic climate is that competition for loyal customers is vitally important. Marketing and advertising, particularly, can be fiercely competitive. At some point a small business may feel a unique pressure to employ a strategy or campaign that while not overtly illegal, like a bait and switch strategy, is possibly slightly ambiguous in order to make a sale of a product or service. Business ethics are not always black and white, like many other matters of ethics they are also very grey. In these grey areas lie major land mines for small businesses.
Services could be advertised with a clear directive for up-selling or hidden professional costs added on. Product supply could be ordered with full knowledge of inadequate quantities. The grey areas abound. All it takes is a single customer to plant their foot on one of these land mines and the damage is done. You’ve burned a customer relationship to the ground and for a small business, the fallout could be catastrophic to your business’s reputation. Why are these grey areas so dangerous? They are dangerous because they don’t necessarily have to be overt or intentional. The customer only has to feel slighted and the customers’ perception is the only reality that matters. So steer clear of the grey areas and keep your marketing and advertising campaigns clear and concise. Your business and your customers will both be better for it in the long run.
And to Outback Steakhouse Customer Support: I’m still waiting for a reply to my email, looks like I’ll continue taking my business elsewhere.
Shortly after the publishing of this article, I was contacted by one of Outback Steakhouse’s Southern California marketing representatives. The representative expressed his apologies for the experience that my wife and I encountered, provided gift cards sufficient for two dinners and asked that we give Outback another try. Given that response, we will certainly give the restaurant another chance.