What Should You Do When You Lose a Really Good Customer

What Should You Do When You Lose a Really Good Customer
This is the post I wish I never had to write. It's never fun when you lose a client. Especially painful when you lose a great client. That's exactly what happened to us last month, just before going on vacation, no less. I took some time off during my time off and reflect on what happened and ask myself... "What went wrong?" It's been therapeutic to write it, and we hope you find it useful and get some takeaways to help you in your business.

If you’ve in business long enough, you’ll inevitably end up having an unhappy client or two sooner or later.

As long as you’re providing a great product or service, there are generally only a handful of things that can sour a relationship with a good customer.

In my experience most of the problems can be narrowed down to these three things:

  1. Poor communication
  2. A bad match between your services and your client
  3. A combination of these two

Regardless of the reasons, it’s never fun when a promising client decides to walk away. This post was written within a day of having lost a really good client; and, in a sense, I’m writing it to help me process the question we all ask ourselves, “What went wrong?”

It’s been therapeutic to write about it.

It’s easy for self-doubt to creep in when you lose a client. If your experience was like mine, you  question whether you did the right thing, if you could have said or done things differently.

Rather than wallowing in self-doubt, it’s more productive to go through an evaluation process to discover what can be learned from the experience. So, I wanted to share the process I go through.

Here is the first question you should ask yourself when you lose a great customer…

Did you do everything in your power to keep them as a client? If so, what did you do?

Step 1: Get outside help.

Did you ask for input from others to get a more objective opinion? It’s easy to operate in a vacuum when you’re a business owner. I know I take my work seriously, so I am not always the most objective when it comes to evaluating my own performance.

When you get input from someone you trust, someone who understands your business, they can certainly bring clear perspective and help you see things through a different lens.

In this case of this specific client, we sought and received some great advice from our C12 business coach and our informal board of directors (topic for another time). Their advice was two-fold. First, they said, given the scenario, do whatever you have to win back your client. Second,if you do, be prepared for ongoing high maintenance.

So we set out to do whatever it takes to retain our client.

Step 2: Do whatever it takes to win them back.

Working hard to retain a bad client, isn’t productive. But when your ideal client starts to head for the door, you have to be willing to go the extra mile to win them back. Here’s what you can do:

Set a meeting with your client with the only purpose of giving him a heartfelt apology.

Make sure you own up to everything you did wrong. You may not think you did anything wrong, but even something as little as communicating more regularly or following up more often could have avoided an unhappy client.

Sometimes it’s something as small as using poorly chosen word or phrase. It doesn’t matter.

It’s time to own up to it.

Besides, as the owner, you need to take responsibility for the outcome, regardless of whether it was your fault or not. In our situation, a simple “you’re right, I’m sorry” opened the door for the possibility of continuing to work together.

Let your client define “whatever it takes.”

It’s the business equivalent of the Five Love Languages. You might love spending quality time with your spouse, but your partner may prefer flowers, chocolate, and gifts 10x more than quality time.

So if your client gives you the opportunity, let them tell you what you should do to repair the relationship.

In our situation, we didn’t have the opportunity to find out what their business love language was, so we ended up refunding several months worth of fees, and didn’t bill for time that we invested above and beyond our monthly allowance in an effort to do whatever it takes.

Limits to “whatever it takes.”

Before we move on, let’s be clear that “whatever it takes” doesn’t include anything that is illegal, is immoral, or contradicts the core values of your company.

We have worked really hard to develop a clear list of core values for 8 Signal. Those values drive our company culture and impact every decision we make.

Doing “whatever it takes” may include offering discounts, apologies, bonus services, a free gift, or something else, but it won’t ever include compromising who we are.

Revisit your business systems and add some caulking to all the gaps

You’re not perfect.  (I know, I was shocked and couldn’t believe when I was told the same thing.)  Neither are your business systems.

In the face of failure or the loss of a client, this is the perfect time to evaluate your business systems and either fine-tune or overhaul any pieces of that require your attention.

Below are the areas we discovered needed some serious work. It’s not an exhaustive list, just the most obvious areas of weakness we had as a new company:

  1. Clearly defined transitions from one stage of a project to the next.
  2. Communicate transitions more clearly to the client, and explain how those transitions impact project schedules and costs.
  3. Create a process for letting the client know when a request falls outside the scope of the original agreement and how to handle the change.
  4. Our invoice payment reminders were generic and very impersonal. We rewrote all of them to sound more like us and less like a company that doesn’t care.
  5. We didn’t clearly communicate to our clients when invoices were due and what would happen if payment wasn’t submitted on time.  Ask any property manager, and they’ll tell you the first thing you do with a new renter is explain what day rent is due. The second thing you do is follow through on consequences for late payments.
  6. We didn’t have the client sign a contract that ensured we were all the the same page regarding services and fees.

As you can see, all of these fall under poor communication.

Many of these would have minimized the negative experience for the client we just lost, but others were things we discovered as we set ourselves to introspection.

If you run an established company, your systems may only need light fine-tuning.

However, because we’re a startup, we have to build some of these from the ground up. This takes time and I know the processes will be refined with time, trial, and error.

What’s important is that you set yourself on a path to continuous improvement. This will not only help you avoid losing great clients, it’ll separate you from your competition.

You’ll also continue adding value to your existing client base. Which brings me to my next point.

Refocus on your existing clients

You lost a good customer.  Stop beating yourself up.  Learn from it, and the move on.

I have a friend with a client base of over 700. He used to lose sleep and his whole week would be ruined if one unhappy customer left his business. Valuing every one of your customers is an honorable thing, but not at the expense of your physical health, mental health, or the health of your business.

Did you do everything in your power to rescue the relationship? If so, it’s time to move on.  Dwelling on what happened won’t do your business any good.

This entire article is the act of turning the negative experience of losing a client into a positive one. Rather than letting it ruin our first family vacation in a long time, I’m processing, growing, and moving on.

The best cure for getting over a lost customer is to focus on the customers you have right now.  (Tweet this.)

Turning that negative energy into a  positive learning experience will benefit your existing clients and ultimately help you build your business.

So what’s a practical way to do this?

  1. Contact your best clients and find out if there’s anything you can do for them.
  2. Make a list of services that will add a ton of value to your clients without costing you an arm and a leg so you can randomly give away those services to surprise your customers.
  3. Survey your customers, or just pick up the phone and call them. Let them know you just lost a customer and ask each one, “What can I do differently that will make you an even happier customer?”

Most of your customers will point out things they like about you before they point out areas of weakness. Hearing your clients speak encouragingly about you, like we’ve recently heard from some of you, will be a huge boost for your morale.

Losing customers will hurt, this process will make it less painful

Lost customers equals lost revenues.  In this post I focused on the emotional side but there’s also a financial loss.  As a start up company, the financial loss really stinks, plain and simple.

It literally comes out of our paycheck. That’s why it’s critical that we revisit the steps outlined in this post:

  • Did you do everything in your power to win the client back?
  • How can you improve your business systems?
  • What can you do for your existing client base?

Have you ever lost a great customer? If so, what other suggestions do you have on how to bounce back stronger than ever?