A cautionary listicle: Five strategies that will send your best customers packing

customer churn

In descending order by size, the internet is made of:

  1. Adult entertainment;
  2. Sales tips and advice;
  3. News; and
  4. Other.

So there’s near-infinite advice on how to grow your business. There’s much less on how to stop customer churn, as those customers abandon ship.

If you’re serious about business, tattoo this onto your thigh: you’ll make tonnes more money winning a smaller number of customers, and then keeping them.

My god, I’m embarrassed I even have to write that here, because I’m patronising you with a really obvious fact you already know. But for some weird reason, so many businesses seem OK with endless customer churn. All those nice new customers thrown straight on the bonfire of irritation and indifference.

There are so many effective strategies companies use to annoy their customers away. Today I’ve picked five at random.

1. Nickel and diming key clients

So you have a big customer, well done! Now, tread carefully. You’ll need quite a few staff to service that account. However, the more staff you have, the higher the chance one or two of them will be small-minded admin police who would like to extract an extra $71.83 of revenue on an account worth hundreds of thousands.

Late fees. Administrative charges. Billable hours for a short phone call to discuss previous billable hours. Because internal processes say so.

It’s not the amount of money. In fact, the smallness of the sum only highlights the petty greed. I’ve seen so many large customers change suppliers this way. Mind you, some of those have come to us, so it’s not all bad news.

2. Your staff haven’t read your website

Groceries aside, is there a single purchase in 2019 that doesn’t involve some level of web-stalking first?

Anyone who’s studied marketing will remember the classic AIDA model for the purchase process: awareness, interest, desire, action.

In, 2019, AIDA often goes awareness, interest, desire, annoyance.


Customer visits store.

‘Can I get the product/service/deal/whatever?’

‘No we don’t offer that.’

‘It’s … on the front page of your website.’

‘Oh. Nobody told me that. Could you wait there for 10 minutes while I …’


When customers who read your website come in knowing more about your products than your staff do, you deserve every bit of disruption that’s coming your way.

3. Hiding contact details

Hack — now there’s a word that’s lost all meaning as it gets pinned to ever-lamer achievements. Like this BBC journo whose groundbreaking stroke of genius was … *drum roll* … he made his own sandwich at work. Did that deserve its own video? You be the judge.

But hacking is the only word to describe looking for customer service help from many big companies now. Look at their websites. They would very much like you to buy from them, but if you’d like post-purchase assistance, their contact details may as well be on the dark web.

I’m picturing the van full of tech stuff parked outside in action movies, where nerd guy with his earpiece is talking to the action team in the elevator shaft.


Action man: ‘How are we going? It’s been an hour.’

Nerd guy: ‘Nearly in just need to download the 512-bit crypto code it’s at 68%.’

Action woman: ‘Step it up data boy we only have 10 seconds left.’

Nerd guy: ‘5, 4, 3, 2 …’

Action woman: ‘HURRY!’

Nerd guy: ‘… aaand I’ve accessed customer support. Family account is re-activated.’

Action man: ‘Thank fuck. Can we watch Netflix now?’

Nerd guy: ‘On all devices.’

Action woman: ‘Whew. Can we just go and sit on the couches in the lobby?’


I bought an expensive global-brand thing last week to hook up to my laptop. It came with an installation CD-ROM like it was 1999. So, after an hour round trip to get a CD drive from the ‘old things’ cabinet at the office, the installation … didn’t work at all.

I checked their website. No phone help. No chat help. Just a link to PDFs of the paper manual I already had.

But there was a corporate slogans page. The slogan should be ‘slogans not service’. I’ll not be buying their gear again. No ‘co-operative enthusiasm’ from this ‘stakeholder’.

Of course, the solution, as with all software support now, was on YouTube, where a 14-year-old in a bedroom in England gave me the answer.

Brands shouldn’t rely on teen volunteer support for their products to work. Help is not a cost that must be ruthlessly minimised.

4. Third-person pronouns

Sure, my interest in grammar isn’t cool, but I can tell a crap company from how their people use pronouns.

When there’s a problem and you hear ‘sorry they told me not to allow that’ or ‘they never told me’, and they work for the same company, that’s a sign of interdepartmental warfare, blame-shifting, scapegoating and a general lack of responsibility.

Your internal problems are not the client’s concern. If your staff don’t say ‘we’ in that situation, you’ve got work to do. About the amount of work that went into rebuilding Europe after World War II.

5. Assuming everyone is a perfect 1960s TV family

It’s amazing so many businesses in 2019 still assume there will be a dutiful mum waiting at home all day in an apron so that all delivery drivers, repair people and so forth can just turn up any time they feel like. In their world, everybody can speak and read complex English. Everyone can take a day off work no problems.

‘Sure I can wait another week for that broadband installation.’

It’s a pretty irritating assumption when people are juggling casualised jobs, crippling debt, sick kids and who knows what else. When someone goes through the hideous task of getting a day off work, waits all day, and your people don’t show up, your company can just get in the bin.

There is a world of opportunity in doing better at this.

How do you learn what annoys people?

Your first instinct will be to respond to people who complain a lot. People who kick up a fuss on TripAdvisor or Yelp or wherever. Companies have weekly meetings to go through each complaint like it’s some tablet of timeless wisdom carved from granite.

Beware. Some people (though not all) just really enjoy complaining. Or are very far from your target market. You get a distorted view because those are people who are never likely to spend much money with you.

TripAdvisor reviews are like being stuck on a long flight next to the most boring person in the world. A bottomless reservoir of mind-numbing, petty gripes. Here’s an example based on a restaurant I’ve enjoyed.

Don’t ignore them, but equally, don’t let a few hardcore complainers steer your ship. Go and talk to your best customers, the people who spend the money, and ask them: ‘Honestly tell us what we do that annoys you. We would really value that information.’ Usually, they’re happy to help.

So, you get the information you need to turn good customers into something above and beyond that. I’m literally just off the phone from one of our favourite customers after exactly that conversation, and it was more valuable than a thousand email satisfaction surveys.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics.

NOW READ: Six customer service mistakes that drive customers crazy

NOW READ: Bridging the gap: Why regular customer surveys are key to good business


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