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Skift Take

This is what happens when you let conversion marketers run amok with customer experience. They made it a science, but forgot being human.

— Rafat Ali

A weekend morning before the rest of the family wakes up is the best time to research and book a trip. It requires attention and certain amount of tolerance for being aggressively sold to, which these languid early mornings give allowance for.

This Saturday morning, in between booking a trips to Tampa and Vancouver — both for work — I managed to coin a new term, “hate-selling,” which seems to have touched a nerve on Twitter. These series of tweets I did this weekend while going through the buying process have become the most popular tweets I have ever done in my six years on the service.

The term “hate-selling” came out of my frustration of juggling between horrendously designed car rental booking sites, being hit with all kinds of surcharges for booking on Avis.com, over-aggressive upsell by on airline sites (specifically Delta.com with the most passive-aggressive “restrictions” overlay I have ever seen), to being bombarded with “buy-now-or-else” false-sense-of-urgency prompts on online booking sites.

A few points to make here:

  • The car rental sites, everyone of them, have atrocious user experience and this is nothing short of a tragedy in 2015. Avis’s site is slightly better than others but then the bill comes with crazy surcharges (“Premium Location Surcharge” of 17.83%, really?), add to that all kinds of stern warnings of what you can or cannot do.
  • The U.S. airline sites have all redesigned their sites over the last few years (of course United.com is an exception, is that even a surprise?), but now it is all about the upsell, as everything in the airline experience is now unbundled: how do we get more fees or upgrades out of whoever is booking, come what may. In that quest, Delta’s lowest fare seats comes with tons of restrictions, and its ecommerce team thought it would be a great idea to hate-sell it, implying: “Here’s is what you don’t get, you cheap shit!” Passive-aggressive selling at its best. Or worst.
  • Booking.com pioneered it and now every online booking site (OTAs and metasearch sites) has adopted those “buy-now-or-else” prompts, such that they have completely taken over the buying experience in a lot of ways. Everything is slave to the conversion and anything to create that false sense of urgency, doesn’t matter if the site prompts claim aren’t exactly true, or even relevant. As far as strategies go, they are brilliant and have worked, but for power users like me who can see through these prompts, it is more than an annoyance, it inhibits the buying process. And in a mobile-dominated environment where simplicity is what leads to conversion, these tactics may only add to the frustration of buying in a smaller form factor.
  • The lesson, if any, from all of this: This is what happens when you let conversion marketers run amok with customer experience. They made it a science, but forgot being human.
  • When other e-commerce players, especially the new generation of on-demand services, are distinguishing themselves with overtly-friendly customer service (if you have tried the food-delivery service Munchery, you would know what a great modern digital customer service experience feels like), travel brands are stuck in their ways. They “discovered” a way of selling online back in the early days of Web 1.0, and most of them have stuck to it, just added layers of conversion tactics which in the end may end up alienating customers, leaving them with little choice but to be comparison-shopaholics. Or better still, pining for disruptors. No wonder Uber and other car-hailing services are a looming threat to the car-rental companies, where consumers are beginning to make rent-vs-on-demand decisions on short city trips, and the hassle that car rentals — and indeed driving in traffic — entails.

Below gives you a sense of what happened (my tweets over the weekend), and why it blew up on social media (selected reactions from amongst dozens of them on Twitter).

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