Benign neglect isn’t very romantic

Have you ever wondered why customers go away? Maybe it’s all about romance.

Most businesses and organizations devote a substantial amount of effort and investment to landing new customers (or clients, or supporters). They understand the importance of attracting new people or companies, because that leads to business growth.

Interestingly, very few pay attention to the other end of that process. That’s the point at which existing customers (or clients, or supporters) disappear. And each time that happens, the business or organization must gain a new one just to avoid losing ground.

We tend to talk about customer attrition as though it were a naturally occurring phenomenon. To some degree, that’s probably true. People die, businesses shut down, and the product you sell may lose its appeal to some people.
What about the customers who leave you for other reasons? How valuable would it be if you were able to retain them? One marketing rule of thumb says that it takes six times as much money and effort to sell to someone new than to reach an existing customer. In other words, keeping a customer costs one-sixth as much as replacing one.
That’s why it pays to develop an understanding of what causes our customers to leave. While most businesses assume that the loss will be because of something they did, experience has taught me that the more common culprit is what they didn’t do.

Sure, lousy customer service will lose a piece of business now and then. But what I call benign neglect is one of the most consistent ways a business or organization can lose people over time. They’ll slip away gradually, barely even noticed.

“Benign neglect doesn’t take any effort. In fact, that’s the heart of the problem.”

Benign neglect doesn’t take any effort. In fact, that’s the heart of the problem. When you assume that customers, clients, or supporters are always going to be around, you may just take them for granted. You stop actively reaching out to them in an effort to keep them connected and feeling appreciated. They may even begin to feel neglected.

What happens when you leave them feeling unconnected and neglected? They become vulnerable. And that’s when one of your competitors smiles and catches their attention. The competitor makes them feel wanted and important, and they slip away before you realize what has happened. Oh, you can make that last-ditch, desperate effort to reel them back in, but how well has that worked for you?

If that pattern sounds familiar, there’s good reason. What I just described also happens in romantic relationships. As soon as a romantic interest begins to feel unimportant, unwanted, or neglected, he or she becomes far more susceptible to overtures from another suitor. Most people have experienced it somewhere in their lives, whether it involved a spouse or a seventh-grade girlfriend. While you would think that living through it once would keep us from repeating our mistakes, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.

When you consider the people you’ve known whose relationships have failed, isn’t it fair to say that far more simply faded away than explosively flamed out? Haven’t you heard most of them blame the “little things” that either happened or didn’t happen? That’s our old nemesis benign neglect at work.

If you don’t want to throw up your hands and give in to benign neglect, the only effective way to prevent it is through purposeful action. I’ll never claim to be a romance guru, but it’s safe to say that actively paying attention to a love interest, showing genuine interest in what they say and what they do, making time for them, and reminding them of their importance in your life is an excellent start.

The same holds true for your customers. You can do something as simple as making regular contacts by email, phone, or snail mail. Perhaps you can try to reenergize the relationship by offering some sort of special offer, discount, or opportunity that’s available only to those who have long relationships with your organization. The key is that you have to do something.

Take part of the time and money you devote to new-customer acquisition, and refocus it on retaining (and even expanding relationships) with existing customers.

Not sure what customers really want from you? Asking, “Is there any way we can do a better job for you?” or “What can we do to improve our service to you?” demonstrates that you have a real interest in taking care of them and serving their needs. It shows them that you have a genuine interest in what matters to them. It may even give you brilliant ideas that will help you grow your business or improve profitability.

Don’t be afraid to ask, either. It’s not a sign of weakness, and it’s a lot easier to romance them when the relationship is strong than to find yourself wondering aloud, “Is there anything we could have done differently to keep your business?”