16 December 2015

When to Let Your Customers Break Up with You

I’ve switched internet and TV providers more than once, and I’ve gone back for seconds on at least two of them, but I’ll never go back to the company that pulled a “Dodge the Disconnect” on me.  The representative took all of my information and promised that my service would be canceled, but a supervisor later told me that the rep had actually erased all traces of the conversation so that it wouldn’t count against her quotas.  Because I had to start the cancelation process all over again, I won’t ever do business with that company again.

As I picked up the phone on the second cancelation call, my blood began to boil as I dreaded the long hold time I knew would come once I told the automated system I wanted to cancel.  No one likes having to insist and resist a representative trying to persuade you to stay, but most companies don’t want to make it easy for you to leave because they want to do all they can to maintain loyalty.  This sometimes manifests itself in misguided practices like retention incentives that are not tempered by long-range strategies or policies.

Marthas_BlogFor example, a telecommunication provider promised to waive the cancelation fee when a colleague of mine relocated because the telecom didn’t offer service in the area she moved to.  Not only did the telecom not remove the fee, my colleague had to call several times over 2 months to finally get it reversed. The telecom has since started offering service in her area, but her loyalty was lost in a bad service break up. Was that fee worth the lost business?

The hassles over cancelling a service or purchase are not limited to telecoms.  I recently had to repeatedly call and email an electronics company over a two-week period to return a printer that cost a little over $100.  It wasn’t until I finally got through to a representative and explained that I had also purchased a much more expensive computer and was upset with them that the company snapped to attention and processed the return.  However, I’m still unlikely to buy from them again.

So, this begs the question, when is it a good idea to let your customers go?

 Learning the hard way

During the re-design of a financial institution’s IVR, a member of the loan department requested that the option for paying off a loan be buried deep in the menu structure to make it harder to find.  She thought it might prevent some customers from leaving, and no-one else saw the danger.  After the application deployed, customer satisfaction ratings dropped and angry customers complained that “the automated recording says ‘payoff,’ but doesn’t give the option to actually pay off a loan,” that “it just makes you go in circles,” and “all I wanted to know was how much money I had left to pay off on my loan. I was not able to find out.”  At the first opportunity, the application design was changed to make the loan payoff option easier to find, and customer satisfaction ratings went back up.

In 2004, AOL settled two class-action lawsuits for failing to process cancellation requests.  Apparently, in some cases, the representatives were not processing the requests (more disconnect dodgers), and in others the cancellations went through and then service was started up again without the customer’s permission.  The negative publicity was significant at a time when competitors were ramping up their services.

In the first case, although the financial company’s application deployment triggered a drop in customer satisfaction ratings, a fix was implemented quickly because the organization was surveying its customers and was able to detect the shift in satisfaction.  In the second case, the fix only appeared after an expensive lawsuit and significant damage to the company’s reputation.

 When should an organization let go?

 Although some companies may sell one-offs, the financial institution that tried to bury the option for paying off the loan is tied to a product that’s known for quality and brand loyalty – so customer satisfaction is crucial and should never take a backseat to temporary customer retention.  Repeat customers are critical to the product’s success. Therefore, if paying off a loan means that the customer is able to buy a new product with a new loan from the same brand, a smart loan company will light the exit path for them and hope they come back for seconds and thirds.  The same logic applies to any industry that relies on repeat business and brand loyalty.

“Customer satisfaction is crucial and should never take a backseat to temporary customer retention.”

The smartest companies not only allow for graceful exits; they take the time to ask customers why they are leaving on the way out.  Not only does this provide good fodder for making improvements, it also tells the customer that the organization cares and wants to do better.  Exit surveys combined with customer satisfaction surveys are a powerful one-two punch.  A Netflix customer noted that Netflix makes it super easy to cancel – you can do it right online. On top of that, they have a quick survey that asks the reason for canceling service. Since it’s so easy to come and go, customers eventually come back to Netflix and reinvest in their service.

When should an organization try to keep customers?

As I was canceling my cable service with Time Warner a few years ago, a ‘retention specialist’ asked me why I wanted to switch providers.  When I told him we were big baseball fans and needed to see our San Diego Padres, there was nothing he could do because Time Warner stopped carrying the local baseball games over a dispute in rates.  Although they had to let me go, they were clearly keeping track of the number of baseball-related deserters because several months later they agreed to carry the baseball games again – and we are back with them today. This just shows that having a 360° voice of the customer is important to all departments: marketing, sales and service.

For instance, when a marketing manager chose to stop service with a marketing automation software provider because it didn’t have the functionality she needed, the customer retention specialist told her it was good evidence to take to their product managers to improve their product.   Any time an organization connects with a customer who wants to leave, at a minimum, it should be an opportunity to learn or improve.

“Tell your customers what’s most important:  that you care what they think, that you hear what they want, and that even if they’re calling to leave you, they might find themselves asking you to take them back one day- because you are only going to get better.”

How to prevent a nasty surprise?

The key to avoiding significant issues when deploying a new or remodeled application like the financial services company that hid the loan payoff option are to put the research, time, and investigation in during the design phase of a project.  In addition, monitoring and checking in after deployment help you adjust quickly to any unexpected issues or bumps.  At PTP, we recommend that organizations take the following measures to ensure that they are not introducing friction to any stage of a customer purchase:

While there is no way to guarantee a perfect experience or a wrinkle-free application for every caller, these measures mitigate against major surprises and tell your customers what’s most important:  that you care what they think, that you hear what they want, and that even if they’re calling to leave you they might find themselves asking you to take them back one day – because you are only going to get better.

Read my most recent blog about when it’s good to be redundant in user experience design…and also life.

Authored bY

Martha Senturia

With a background in theoretical linguistics, my life-long passion for speech and language has fueled my 15+ years dedicated to improving customer experience through user centered design and usability testing. I’ve designed and led large and small-scale multi-lingual programs across industry verticals and understand the importance of homing in on the intricate complexity of your customer service processes to create a simplified experience for customers worldwide.


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