Why do some Staples employees refuse to sell computers to customers who don’t want to buy warrantees? That’s right, it appears that Staple’s employees use what they call “walking the customer” out of the store if they aren’t willing to buy a warrantee or other extras with a computer.

Shall we blame the employees? No! As I describe in The Six Laws of Customer Experience: employees do what is measured, incented, and celebrated. This is a breakdown of the system, not the people.

When a situation like this happens, leaders need to ask themselves: what are we doing that is causing this type of behavior? In this case with Staples, the behavior seems to be driven by a goal for each store to have an average of $200 of add-ons (including warrantees) for every computer that it sells. This goal puts pressure on store managers and employees that translates to pressure on customers and, at least occasionally, to a downright refusal to sell computers.

Here’s what the New York Times uncovered from Staples employees:


The average needs to be $200. In other words, each time you sell a computer, you need to sell, on average, $200 worth of other stuff. And that average is carefully tracked. Sales staffers who aren’t meeting their goals are coached, and if that doesn’t work, she and other employees said, there will be disciplinary action that can lead up to termination; underperformers can also end up with lots of night and weekends shifts or even a reduction in scheduled hours.


Unfortunately this situation is not uncommon. I was recently at an Enterprise Rental Car where an employee kept trying to sell me additional insurance. After I rebutted his first few offers, he got more and more ornery about it and kept trying to make me feel like an idiot for not taking the insurance (which I knew that I did not need). I’m pretty confident that his behavior was driven by some sales incentive/program.

Companies often create goals that make perfect sense at corporate headquarters. $200 per computer or an increase in car insurance probably generates nice-looking numbers in a spreadsheet. Why not set it as a goal? Why not hold managers and employees accountable? It’s great for our bottom line and it seems so reasonable…

What’s missing from the equation is an understanding of the environment that these decisions create. Every incentive or goal that you place on an employee must interact with everything else you want them to do. When you overemphasize a goal (like $200 per computer), then you are asking the organization (maybe not explicitly, but quite adamantly) that it should forget about some other goals and focus on this one. If it’s hard to sell $200 of extras per computer, then the organization figures out how to reach the goal by not selling computers if the customer doesn’t want a warranty.

Staples and Enterprise Rental Car are pretty well run companies. They just forgot the 5th rule of customer experience…

Employees do what is measured, incented, and celebrated.

This blog post was originally published by Temkin Group prior to its acquisition by Qualtrics in October 2018.