To Poach or Not to Poach? The Ethics of Marketing to Competitors’ Customers

Derek Halpern has a new post that provides some good food for thought: is it ethically acceptable to pitch to a rival’s clients? His conclusion: it’s not black and white, but why cross a grey line when you’re better off finding entirely new customers?

Put those gloves back on, ladies and gentlemen.

I asked them how they’d feel if I went down their client list, and messaged each of them. Both of them said they wouldn’t like it. Naturally.

Oh tech people.

They notoriously HATE marketing and selling. And they’ll slam people who try to grow their business…

…but then we look at their actions. Behind closed doors, when nobody is looking, they’re marketing and selling in the worst way possible.

I’m me. I LOVE competition. I grew up playing chess, had a stint as a professional gamer, and nothing makes me happier than beating someone who’s trying to beat me.

But this has got to stop.

Not because it’s slimy. Not because it’s border-line unethical. It has to stop because this is a HORRIBLE way to win business.

Is it? Is it slimy? Is is borderline unethical? (And what does that mean–almost bad or almost good?) Is it a horrible way to win business?

I’ve been following Derek’s blog for a while now: I love his ideas, consider him one of my mentors, and hardly ever comment on his posts because I’m too busy nodding in silent agreement. But besides being an introverted admirer, I’m also passionate about things like ethics and social justice. When it comes to business practices, “borderline (un)ethical” doesn’t cut it.

So I thought about it, and most of what I thought, I also posted as a comment on the blog post. Here it is with some differences.

“I don’t like it” is Not a Marketing Strategy

“Slimy” is an expression of personal disgust, not a strategy breakdown. “Horrible” is a subjective perception, not an objective assessment.

The objective assessment: unless you know exactly who to approach (the visibly unhappy, the barely interested), pitching to your rival’s clients runs a significant risk of being futile from the get-go. As a marketing strategy, it is ineffective. Not morally reprehensible. Not horrible. Not always useless. Just far more trouble than it may be worth.

You’re not going to get very far if you don’t focus on growing your own little garden of goodwill. But short of a mudslinging campaign (unless it’s a battle of the brands done right, with humor), underhanded viciousness (see also: buying toxic backlinks to mess up a competitor’s site), or outright lies and slander, I don’t see what’s unethical about scoping out your competitor’s lawn.

More Freedom, Fewer Gag Orders

If it’s not illegal, not malicious, not slanderous, not based on falsehood, and not even occasion-inappropriate (like telling somebody to sign up on on your job site after they just quit another one) then how is that message unethical? Since when did good business become all about coloring within ‘grey lines’?

Sure, pitching to another company’s clients may not win you friends (and that’s something you need to think about) but here’s the thing: Derek is right when he says tech people don’t ‘get’ marketing or selling. Because those guys are wrong–not when they go after his customers, but when they feel upset at the thought of him doing the same to them. That’s not how it works–you don’t grow by limiting the messages your customers receive, you grow by beating those messages with a better one. Monopolies aren’t fair to anyone, not even you in the long run.

My job as an entrepreneur is to make something that makes people’s lives better. My job as a marketer is to create value, not control what people say about it and to whom.
There are lawyers for that.

Every Time You Lose a Customer, Everybody Wins. Including You.

No, seriously.

Somebody on the post pointed out that they offer pain relief through massage therapy and that other massage clinics are not viewed as competitors. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason why doctors and teachers don’t generally view other healthcare and education professionals as “competitors” in the traditional sense even if that’s exactly what they are: the bottom line is the welfare of the client. This is naturally more accentuated in some industries than others.

But here’s the thing: that’s exactly why competition is necessary.

The idea of client loyalty being something that must be earned and maintained is exactly what drives many of the best of us, but it doesn’t work if every company stakes out their patch of earth that nobody else is allowed to trespass on–and here’s the key part–by virtue of it already belonging to them. No. Just no.

There’s no grey line here: the people who love your service are NOT going to be swayed one bit by this approach, and Derek is absolutely right that if a marketer doesn’t realize when they’re barking up the wrong tree then they need to stop. (And preferably get another job.) If anything, this will only make those clients even more loyal to you because they’ll have consciously put themselves in your corner when propositioned to betray you. (Just spend two minutes watching a political or religious debate and see the power of cognitive bias in all its reinforced beauty.) Honestly, thank those competitors for that; you couldn’t have done it without them!

BUT then there ARE people who might be swayed. These are the people who weren’t happy with what you had to offer, for whom your service was not such a great fit. So what does that mean? It means somebody found a service they are (or think they will be) happier with, you got rid of an unhappy or unmotivated client, and the country’s economy is better off for it on the whole.

It’s a lot like romantic relationships, I suppose: if you love someone, let them go–if they don’t come back, they were never yours. You may or may not expect out of courtesy that people won’t hit on your partner, but even if they do–your relationship is only as committed as your partner’s decision to flirt back. That commitment is what makes the difference to your future together, not other people’s interest or lack thereof.

Because really. They’re people, not eggs.