The One Thing That Smart Businesses Never Do

The One Thing Smart Businesses Never Do - Brass Tack ThinkingSmart businesses don’t make it difficult for people to leave.

The games, the gimmicks, the “hide the cancel button”, the hard “please don’t go” sales routine. Does it work? Maybe, technically. You might get some people who will be too frustrated to go through the brain damage and they’ll sit there paying you every month for a while. (If that’s your definition of “effective”  then you’ve probably got deeper business ethics issues than a blog post can solve, anyway.)

But eventually, if a customer is determined to leave, they’ll find out how to do it. And they will resent the hell out of you for making it hard for them to do so.

When we decide to stop doing business with a company for whatever reason, making it hard for us to do it doesn’t prevent us from leaving. Burying your “cancel account” links, forcing your customers to talk to a “retention representative” before you’ll cancel something, leaning hard on contract cancellation dates to squeeze every last dime out of a client…those things don’t give us a sudden epiphany that causes us to say “Ah, you’re right! What was I thinking? Go ahead and keep charging me.”

It just pisses us off.

Your customers and clients remember how you made them feel, especially when you choose to leave.

If you’re polite, courteous, and grateful for their business up until that point, they remember that. They might even be back someday.

But rest assured if you make someone feel taken advantage of, if you keep hitting them with a “re-engagement” pitch hoping to cling to some shred of an account with them (AOL, anyone?), if you make the entire process cumbersome and confusing and time consuming, they’ll remember that too, and not fondly. In which case you’ve probably wrecked whatever chance you have that they might become a customer again someday.

That last aftertaste you have of a business can color your entire experience, no matter how many great moments you had before.

Desperation is not a customer retention strategy. And if you have to resort to that in order to get people to stay on for the paltry conversion rate that it might give you, your problems are somewhere much more fundamental. You’re losing the customers for a reason. If your entire business model is built on locking people in, locking them down, and preventing them from leaving and joining again to take advantage of “new customer” programs or something…well, that is a deep, systemic problem based in dead-end practices that needs much more than this post.

But if the issues are at least partially because your customers are unsatisfied, missing something or not getting their needs met as expected, you have to fix those issues, whatever they are, at their root. Or you’ll forever be fighting the exodus instead of understanding how to keep hold of your customers in the first place.

When customers choose to leave, the process should be really simple.

1. Thank them for their business to date, even if you failed to meet their expectations. Mean it.

2. Confirm your understanding that they wish to cancel, terminate their contract, whatever. I recognize that some cancellations for complex contractual agreements might be more complicated than simply unsubscribing from an email, so I didn’t say “cancel their account immediately.” The point is that your customer or client needs to know that you heard them, and that you’re going to work with them to wrap things up in whatever way is appropriate to your arrangement and relationship.

3. By all means, ask people why they’re leaving, but do so for your own intelligence purposes and to understand the needs and motivations of your customers, especially if they’re changing. The very best thing you can do to is use the feedback your exiting clients and customers give you and put it to good use making your business better for the ones that you’ve still got.

4. If the situation calls for it, apologize for missing the mark or disappointing them.

5. If you have a legitimate solution or alternative that they might not be aware of or the ability and willingness to make a sideways situation right somehow, suggest it politely. But do so after you’ve already let them go with a sincere thank you.

6. Recognize that sometimes, there’s nothing wrong. With them or you. Your offerings and their needs might not match up anymore. You may have outgrown them or vice versa. Sometimes, it’s just time to move on.

I know that most of you reading this probably aren’t the ones making the hard-sell desperation moves. I’m betting you’re smarter than that.

But maybe, just maybe, there’s someone reading that knows someone doing this. Maybe your boss needs to hear it because your team’s performance is blindly tied to volume retention numbers. Maybe you don’t fall on the extreme end, but you find yourself slowly but surely creeping toward more crafty ways of keeping your customers or subscribers because you’re seeing some concerning trends in the numbers. Or maybe you think it’s just “the way it is” and the only way that works and you don’t know how to do it any other way.

Don’t give in.

I work with lots of businesses that struggle with the balance between scale and customer and client service. I understand that the numbers favor retention over acquisition and I deeply understand the value of keeping customers and clients. I also understand the complexities we’ve built into our huge consumer product and service companies and how hard it is to turn a big ship in a new direction. I do that work every day, and the realities of how hard this is are not lost on me.

But treating your customers like intelligent people deserving of respect and maintaining strong financial and operational performance are not mutually exclusive. They’re difficult. They require investment. They require, at times like now in this social era, completely re-imagining the way we’ve done things for many decades. But businesses do it, have done it, and will continue to do it if they’re to survive and thrive in a world that continually demands companies that create gravity instead of perpetuating the us vs. them mentality that’s broken so many things in the customer-to-business world.

Difficulty is never a good reason not to change (or in some cases, never do in the first place) something that’s unhealthy for our business and customers in the long term. That’s the mindset that gets us lumbering, entrenched systems in the first place that languish until they eventually collapse. That’s also why I do the work that I do in organizational change.

Because it can be done. It needs to be done. We can demand better of ourselves, our peers, and our industries.

Because if we don’t lead the change, raise our standards and open our minds to doing things differently, who will?

  • Heather

    Excellent post!

    When my contract for my gym membership ran out, it had auto-renewal. In order to actually cancel, I had to send a letter via registered mail (it cost $15 to do so), even though the main office was only a mile and a half from the post office. Appearing to the manager in person would not cancel the account.
    Not only did I cancel, but then entire lobby of the post office discovered what poor business practices the health club had. I am ready to look for a health club again, but it won’t be that one!

  • Unmana

    So much to agree with (and quote from!) here. I’ve become more careful about learning how easy it is to stop doing business with a company before I start doing business with them!

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  • MicroSourcing

    Making it difficult for customers to severe ties with your business actually strengthens their resolve to do so. Moreover, it will actually ruin your chances of having customers reconsider going back to your business in the future.