Can OfficeMax escape the perils of Transactional Thinking and instead cultivate quality relationships?National businesses like OfficeMax represent everything I warn local businesses not to do.

OfficeMax exemplifies the mindset of Transactional Thinking. I mean that its laser focus on the single sale and minimizing costs reduces the customer relationship to that of a mere transaction. This automatically makes people feel less than human.

A Tale of Treating People as Transactions

This is what happened.

Last Friday morning, as I entered the local Tacoma OfficeMax, the employee at the copy counter saw me come in. Instead of greeting me, she actually turned her back and walked the other way. Not a satisfying start.

As I made my way to the wall of toner, another employee puttered close by, stocking some items, but he made a concerted effort to avoid eye contact. I found my printer toner, milled around looking at other items, all the while the employee studiously went about his business. He never made any attempt to greet me.

Only slightly annoyed that no one had even welcomed me, I headed to the checkout counter to make my purchase and get out of the store. As I approached the counter, an employee, Erin, came out through a side door and visibly sighed at the sight of me. She walked up and and said gruffly, “Ready?” I told her I was more than ready.

The rest of the transaction proceeded in a hurried and impersonal manner, as if she’d rather be doing anything else. Of course she was obliged to ask if I found everything alright and I told her about my experience. Erin sighed again, directing me to the company website, speaking in a very bored and uncaring manner.

I left the store feeling like OfficeMax employees, and by extension OfficeMax itself could care less whether I was a customer or not. Maybe that’s true.

And the hits keep on coming…

Now add this to my wife’s experience with their copy counter the night before. She belongs to a local artist collective and they needed 600 fliers printed. They requested that the fliers be printed on colored paper, to which the employee responded that each unit of colored paper was $.59 each. Not color copies mind you, black and white copies on colored paper. My wife and her colleague pointed out that the price seemed exorbitant (over $350), but the employee apparently shrugged her shoulders and said that’s what it cost. No reasoning would sway her.

Instead of going through the hassle of dealing with managers or customer service, my wife decided to go across the street to Kinko’s. They got the job done with no trouble whatsoever, for 1/4 the price quoted by OfficeMax’s employee. This could have been a great opportunity for OfficeMax to connect with a thriving local community organization but instead Kinko’s gets the business.

Treating people as transactions will destroy your business

OfficeMax has at least three problems here that Local Businesses can learn from:

  1. Transactional Thinking Loses in the Long Term – If all OfficeMax cares about are single transactions, then what they are doing in Tacoma works fine. But, if they want to maximize the lifetime value of each customer, they must take into account the long term relationship. The future will rely on businesses cultivating relationships into friendships, and no one wants to be a friend with someone who uses them.
  2. Not Hiring the Right People for the Job – It’s an employer’s market out there, find employees that care. This is interesting to me since the only advantages OfficeMax has over internet competitors are immediate gratification and quality of in-person service (i.e. cultivating a relationship with the customer).
  3. Breaking Promises – OfficeMax has a large sign at the entrance saying they guarantee satisfaction. If you guarantee anything, you need to be able to deliver in the moment. Erin, the OfficeMax employee, should have been authorized to do whatever she could to make it right. Every business should promise a better story for their customers. Failing to provide that, every business should have in place a way to immediately correct the situation. In this case, if OfficeMax does have such a policy but Erin was unwilling to waste her time with helping a customer, they should see #2.

Am I just being too sensitive?

You might simply read this as me complaining, and to a degree you would be correct. I was peeved at the small things, annoyed at being treated like I didn’t matter. The thing is, you have been in my shoes. We have all experienced that moment of annoyance when the salesperson won’t go out of their way to help, or someone tries to sell us the extra feature that we obviously don’t need. The time will come when that is all it takes to lose a customer forever.

There is so much more at stake

There are two worldviews at war here; the view of the customer as the transaction, as an inhuman number to meet a sales goal, V.S. viewing the customer as a friend and cultivating relationships with each person that visits your place of business.

Every business must make a choice. Will you follow the old way, trying to make customers cogs in your sales engine? Or will you connect with them and cultivate quality relationships, turning into lasting friendships? The choice is yours.


[To their credit, OfficeMax was monitoring Twitter and told the Tacoma store manager to call me on Friday, just hours after I left. He apologized for both situations and offered reasons why the experience was not optimal. I told him the basics of what was in this article and he agreed with me. However, unless change comes from much higher up, I don’t have much hope for the organization.]