Hey Groupon, Can You Spare Some Culture Change?

While there’s been a lot written about the aftermath of Groupon’s IPO, falling share price and certain investors now leaving, the part of the story that’s getting lost a bit in the shuffle is how important a culture shift can be to a company’s trajectory. It’s no coincidence at all to me that Groupon’s struggles happened around the same time that its culture appeared to go through a fundamental change.

Up until about late last year, every other article about Groupon seemed to be about its loose dress code and vacation policy, its management’s quirky sense of humor, the transparent vibe, the customer service people who spent time at Second City, the actor who was hired to walk through the offices in a ballerina tutu.

So what happened?

In two words: Wild success. And ironically, believe it or not, those uncharted waters beyond the first big milestone can sometimes be a bad thing.

“It seems like the high echelons of upper management have forgotten their fellow employees. People are secretive. Shadow-like. Nobody talks to anyone. It’s like a high school.”

                                                – Glassdoor.com Company Review

We see this all the time in the Advertising world: Small agency with talented people and a cool culture gets outrageously successful, wins lots of new business, wins awards and earns great press. Then they get purchased by a bigger entity, which, of course, says, “We’re not going to change anything. We recognize why the agency we bought was successful and we don’t want to tamper with that success.”

It sounds promising when everyone is all smiles, handshakes and photo opps. Until some time passes and some elements slowly begin to change – not necessarily for the better. The culture that made the small agency great gradually melts away. Key players leave. You start to hear remaining veterans wandering the halls talking about the “good ol’ days” when so-and-so was running things.

 “Some employees who were bumped up to manager status in the hiring blitz have no idea what they’re doing. One is known to have admitted she ‘doesn’t like people’ and avoids most of our her staff, except her favorites.”

– Glassdoor.com Company Review

From an outsider’s point of view, it seems the very same pattern may have emerged here with Groupon.


Integrate Sales More into the Brand

Groupon is not unique in this circumstance – sometimes when I speak to companies, they refer to the Sales team as “those guys” off in some territory doing things that management hopes is the right message. But they’re never quite totally sure that Sales understands the “big picture” of what brand is aiming to achieve. This is where a lack of consistency can be hugely detrimental.

Think about how important this is. In many events, your people in Sales are at the front lines of telling your brand story. How many of them are all about making commission and how many get the bigger picture of what you’re trying to accomplish from a brand standpoint? Do your prospects/customers feel those salespeople are acting on their best interests?

In Groupon’s case, the directive from management seems to have been, “Close, close, close” without trying to customize very much for what their prospective merchants needed. It may be convenient for some to say that these merchants knew what they were getting into but did they?

If we’re to believe the comments of several current and former employees posted on employer rating site GlassDoor.com, it appears much from a Sales perspective at Groupon in the last year has been a mandate from management about the almighty “Bottom Line”: Making as many calls as possible, closing as many deals as possible and caring little about the merchant’s goals or well-being. Think that makes earning repeat business just a little difficult?

Some may make excuses in a “Hey, that’s a salesperson’s mentality for you” way, but I don’t buy it. It takes a special kind of salesperson to be able to speak to what your brand stands for, weaving it into their sales message eloquently. They can still close while delivering a message on point that leaves the prospective customer with a great impression of the brand for the long-term. Not just meeting the month’s quota.

Still, in that salesperson’s defense, it takes strong upper management with clear and constant communication to bring home this larger vision. If the only directive is “Always Be Closing,” a brand can get wrecked in no time.

Hey, where’s that foosball table we used to play with?

We have to give more credit to the role of fun and teamwork in a brand’s success. It starts from within, not from outside perception. I can’t help but wonder if that’s where Groupon has lost its way. If a company preaches the virtue of having a bold, irreverent environment, shouldn’t it see the merchants it sells to as part of a larger community where everyone wins, not just the employees? What about the customers who purchase a Groupon – shouldn’t those coupons be increasingly more personalized so we’re not being bombarded by random stuff that doesn’t apply to our life every day?

It’s not too late for Groupon to turn things around. But it’s going to take a clarified mission from the top, more consistent and attainable goals, transparency on career paths, an openness to employee feedback at all levels as well as working in the long-term interests of the merchant, not just pressuring them into the first deal.

At the end of the day, it’s about getting back to being the fun company that isn’t afraid to let its hair down in the name of team camaraderie – not just the one that’s trying to meet its numbers at all costs. Happy employees can be amazingly productive employees and great advocates. Nurture them. Now.


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