I hate losing customers.
And it’s one thing to lose customers if you sell to consumers where the universe of potential customers is high and attrition is expected. It’s quite another if your business sells to other businesses. In these companies, a relatively small group of customers create the majority of the value and it can take months, if not years, to develop those relationships.
Losing one of these customers can be devastating. And in worse case scenarios losing a customer can start a chain of events that can be terminal.
This issue came up in my slack channel where I support 37 entrepreneurs.
The loss of the customer came about through a growing company experimenting with using sub-contracted talent to scale the delivery of its work to customers.
When done well, this can be a very effective solution but in this case, the result was damaging to the companies brand and they had lost the customer.
I have been in this situation before. Many have too. Losing a customer comes with shock, disbelief and a grieving process. These emotions also (usually) come with a lack of perspective as the founders are left to quickly diagnose and repair the issue by themselves.
That didn’t happen this time.
In a matter of hours, members of the slack community contributed valuable insights to quell concern, exercise compassion and set the founders on a path to repair the customer relationship.
The community offered three observations as part of level-setting before we talked about the repair process.
First, it’s happened to all of us (and we’re here to help).
Second, it is impossible to understand all the contextual and environmental factors that led to the customer disengaging. It is easy for founders to believe they are the singular point of failure (which is exacerbated by processing the event of loss by themselves in an echo-chamber). The reality is that this is often not the case.
And third, some customer relationships cannot be repaired. Be OK with this.
Repairing customer relationships
Here are the six battle-tested steps I shared with the founder whose business had been impacted.
1. Identify how far short you’ve fallen
A lack of perspective makes it easy to think we have fallen a lot further short than is actually the case. As a result, conversations that can unlock perspective with people at the customer organisation is the essential first step.
The effectiveness of these fact-finding conversations hinges on asking carefully crafted questions, for example:
I understand that we may have dropped the ball. I’m here to help take your [talent/process/product/technology] to the next level. How can we help you and your team with that?
From your perspective, what would you like to see from my company as the next step?
2. Apologise and acknowledge that you’ve fallen short
Once you understand how short your product or team has fallen, offer an authentic apology. Apple does this well, and personally.
3. Own it
There might not be a way to repair a customer relationship but I’ve found that to rarely be the case if founders act quickly to re-establish credibility.
This comes down to proposing a detailed strategy to rectify the issue. And by strategy I mean doing (re)work for free that is hyper-clear, specific, time-bound and measurable.
4. Get stuck in immediately
Issues aren’t like wine, they don’t age well with time. Move to understand the context (step 1) and exercise the plan (step 3) as quickly as possible. Delaying will only put the customer relationship further at risk.
This step is usually where people stop. Don’t stop here because you’ll be leaving value on the table.
5. Add adjacent value
Making amends for whatever the issue is will help but make sure you’re adding other value to the people impacted by whatever the shortfall was. This will help your true value and values shine through and help them be reminded of why your team or product are awesome.
This can involve sharing content, providing specific advice (for free) about topics that are important to them based on your domain expertise and inviting them to events as your guest, to name a few.
6. Get the issue out of your head
You don’t have to post it publicly but write about the issue, how and why it came to be and the steps you’re taking to sort it out.
The consequence of not doing this is that it will fester in your mind and you will be the only one who learns from it.
And IF you do decide to publicly post it somewhere, it will help others to avoid the same mistake. And it might just help your client see how humbling the experience has been for you.
One last thing …
Losing a customer is hard but don’t lose them alone. Ask for help in repairing the relationship regardless of whether it is B2C or B2B.
We have all been there. At the very least you will learn from the experience. At best, you will recover the relationship, generate more value (for them and you) and turn that customer into an advocate.