Avoid Heartbreak; 5 Ways to Prevent Customer Attrition

Brian Cantor

His prices are horrible. He has lost items on multiple occasions. Yet, for some reason, I simply cannot cease business with my dry cleaner. Even if he never found out, the prospect of walking to the cheaper, higher-quality shop around the corner is too heartbreaking to fathom.

In season five "Seinfeld" episode "The Barber," Jerry Seinfeld finds himself unable to ditch the hair stylist who routinely butchers his hair. "I can't switch…I'd hurt his feelings," explains the sitcom’s lead character.

Yes, you read correctly. In both cases, the customer—not the merchant—is concerning himself with the other’s feelings. The customer—not the merchant—is ascribing so much value to his commitment that he cannot bear to switch providers. The customer—not the merchant—finds himself driven by a need to satisfy the business taking his money.

As backwards and bizarre as it might seem at first glance, it is a phenomenon that should be commonplace in today’s age of the customer. If organizations are successful in connecting with customers, they should be establishing relationships so meaningful that severing ties could never feel like a mere "business decision." It should always come with the difficulty, regret and heartbreak of a real breakup. It should always be as undesirable as parting ways with a true friend.

That is what customer loyalty is all about. It is a qualitative concept of a far greater magnitude than that which can be reflected by the frequency of one’s purchasing or volume of advocacy on social media. It is about the customer being so certain he is treasured by the business that he cannot help but treasure that business.

It is about a customer seeking excuses to stay rather than identifying reasons to leave.

Though the concept might seem absurdly idealistic and saccharine, it is readily attainable by any organization that truly cares about its customers. Truly is the key word.

The brands who care about customers enough to create real loyalty know that customer-centricity is about more than offering welcoming marketing messaging. They know it is about more than great prices and great products. They know they need to do more than simply staff customer service agents in multiple channels. They know they need to believe and live everything they say to the customer.

They need to adhere to the following five tips for becoming friends with customers:

1) Humanize the business

People might love brands, but they connect with human beings. They enjoy interacting with human beings. They feel sadness when fighting or ditching human beings.

Any business hoping to create legitimate customer loyalty must engage them with its human side. It must position real people—with real feelings, real work ethic and real empathy—at the center of its customer interactions.

One might commit to the faceless, abstract idea of a corporation out of habit, but at the end of the day, he ultimately sees the relationship as a business one. He turns to the organization for transactions, and if there is a business that can better manage those transactions, he faces no hesitation about chasing that business.

In order to escalate customer loyalty from a habitual concept to a heartfelt one, a business must offer its customers a unique, recognizable identity to whom they can connect. When they come to not only trust the business for the way it does business but specific business employees for the way they provide service, customers will begin to approach their relationship with the business—and its people—as a truer, deeper, more meaningful one.

2) Get to know the customer

Transactions have numbers. Customers have names, faces, personalities and identities. The best businesses know to focus on learning the latter.

In order to bond themselves to a business, customers must feel the business is bonding with them. A business can prove the strength of its commitment to that bond by recognizing the customer as he chooses to be recognized rather than as a numbers-driven computer might suggest.

When a customer frequents your restaurant or bar, make sure you learn his patterns so that you can offer him "the usual." When a cable customer repeatedly calls about a certain issue, make sure you speak from experience by proactively referencing past cases. When an account holder visits your bank, great him by name to confirm he means more than just "Account #101012431."

When you care about customers enough to get to know them, customers return the favor. They care about you. And they stay loyal to your business.

3) Get to understand the customer

Recognition is a great start, but a jaded customer might be unconvinced of its importance. He knows that many businesses will ask their agents to greet customers by name merely to create the appearance of interest.

A truly customer-centric business goes the extra mile and focuses on understanding customers. Its agents ask customers about their weekends and families not because they make for great conversational ice breakers but because they provide a window into who the customer is. And it is a window into which they legitimately want to see.

Such an information exchange should not be used to kill time during a transaction. It should not be used to avoid the awkwardness of staring into space while an order is prepared or a customer information document is loaded on the computer screen. It should be used to create a closeness.

If a customer tells an agent he is struggling with an annoying roommate, the agent should remember to ask about that annoying roommate on the next visit. If a customer tells an agent he just had a son or adopted a pet, the agent should remember to ask about it (and even see a photo) on the next visit.

Businesses foster customer loyalty not by inserting conversational icebreakers into call scripts. They do so by hiring—and coaching—a pool of agents that volunteers to ask such icebreakers because it cares about customers enough to care about their answers.

4) Offer perks

As long as it comes from a place of honesty, transparent behavior is not a bad thing.

From offering discounts, to "chef specials," to free samples, businesses should make it abundantly clear that they want to win over the customer. With each passing interaction, it should make its desire to add value to the customer interaction increasingly clear. It should make its desire to impress the customer increasingly obvious.

When my dry cleaner offered me a "10% discount" for being such a great customer, I knew, deep down, that he was hoping I would treat it as an incentive to spread the word and drive more revenue through his doors. But I also knew that he did not have to treat me to the discount—and that he did not have to risk me not telling my friends and instead simply spending less at his shop. I knew that there was no way he saw me as a faceless number on a receipt, because if he did, he would not have tailored an offering specifically to me.

5) Do not "keep up with the Joneses." Be the only Mr. Smith.

Today’s marketplace is overflowing with competition, and it is human nature to keep tabs on that competition. All business leaders want to know how their goods, services, market share and organizational policies compare to those of competitors.

Keeping a pulse to the marketplace is fine—essential, in fact—but it should not be a primary driver of customer management practices.

Mirroring a competitor’s offering might keep one’s pasture green enough to avoid a mass exodus, but it does not establish a business as special. It does not make the pasture greener than the competition and thus does not incentivize others to switch from their existing providers. And if all else is held equal, it does not discourage customers who had a bad experience from trying their luck elsewhere.

Customer-centric businesses engage in practices that best deliver for the customers about whom they care so dearly. They might take ideas and suggestions from icons like Zappos and Disney into account, but they ultimately craft a business that best responds to the unique needs of their customers.

They strive to be the best possible business for their customers rather than the best possible replica of their competition. They seek not to be one of the Joneses but to be the only Smith.