How-to: Customer recovery, or the forgotten country

Most businesses focus on attracting new customers and keeping the ones they have, but few seriously try to bring back people who left — customer recovery.

Some companies do sales-and-marketing efforts such as sending out coupons or making sales calls to past clients, but there’s another level out there, starting with recovery research. customer recovery graphic

To find out how to bring back old customers (and keep more of the ones you have), the first step is to find out why they left. That can be harder than it looks; often, ex-customers don’t want to talk with you, fill out surveys, and such. Persistence with skilled interviewers is likely the only effective way to go now, especially since everyone is peppered by a few surveys every week.

It also helps to analyze any complaints coming in, so you have an idea of why people may have left; sometimes companies have a good idea of why they’re losing customers, but often they’re operating on incorrect assumptions or incomplete data.

(This is the time to ask yourself, “Do we actually record complaints as they come in? Do our sales or tech support people write them down in usable form? What’s our process here?” Far too many complaints fall solely on the ears of first-level sales or support staff, never written down at all.)

One investment company found that customer satisfaction didn’t predict customer retention; their reaction provides our template. The first step was getting the senior team together, and showing the cost of losing customers. The next step was getting a cross-functional team together; then bringing in skilled interviewers to identify lost customers, talk with them, and find what they could do to bring them back — or what they could have done to keep them.

This goes well beyond the cable company’s “what if we cut $50 off your bill and gave you free HBO?”  Sometimes, customers leave just because of price; but often, there’s a “last straw,” perception gap, or nagging problem. Some may not even realize they’re leaving, depending on the business, but just slowly shift to some other provider.


If there are a small number of customers responsible for a lot of business, they should be overweighted in interviews, but everyone should be sampled.

After the first 30 interviews, a definite pattern should emerge. At that point, the team should meet and see if there is a need to go further.

Going back to the company at hand: they found that nearly all customers were recoverable, and relatively small changes increased retention. Most customers weren’t angry, just distracted; and many did business with different firms, and could bring more business in. In the end, the company gained millions in sales from their work — the project was a major success.

Customer recovery is not rocket science; it’s a set of simple steps that can fix problems and spotlight new opportunities, and it’s relatively cheap and fast to implement. Perhaps it’s time to try it?

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