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7 ways to keep customers when things go wrong

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The Wall Street Journal showed up in my driveway today. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, since I’m a long-time home delivery subscriber. But it was a surprise because I cancelled my subscription last week, following a six-week saga of missed deliveries, lame excuses and indifferent customer services representatives.

Here’s how The Wall Street Journal lost a 20-year customer through poor service and impersonal customer relations — and seven tips about customer retention for your smart marketing strategy.

“I apologize for the inconvenience.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently cut home delivery to four days a week. The Plain Dealer carriers also handled delivery of The Wall Street Journal to some subscribers (including me), so the Journal had to find a new carrier. The Journal sent an email a few days ahead of time to alert me to the upcoming carrier change. But something went wrong and my home delivery stopped altogether.

After a few days, I notified the Journal. They apologized and said they were working on a solution. They suggested I read the paper online in the meantime and offered me 30 days of free online access (although I already had online access).

Weeks went by. Delivery did not resume and my frustration grew. I did live chats online with their service team about once a week to alert them to the unresolved problem, ask for credit for undelivered papers and learn the status of the situation. “We’re working on the problem” was the standard response. No one could tell me when my service would resume.

Finally, one representative estimated service would resume in four to six weeks. But by then, I’d already had enough. Even more important, I’d stopped missing the Journal. It was no longer a “must read” part of my day.

I called to cancel and a phone representative handled the transaction efficiently. But she didn’t do three important things that might have saved the customer relationship: try to get me to change my mind, offer a solution that would satisfy my concerns or express any regret at losing a 20-year customer.

Service disruptions can happen to any business, often due to circumstances outside your control. Here are seven ways to retain your customers if this happens to you:

1. Develop contingency plans. Smart marketers plan for disruptions before they occur. Have contingency plans in place and a well-trained team ready to deploy those plans.
2. Notify customers immediately. Get in touch with customers right away to let them know you’re anticipating a disruption or are aware of a current problem and are working on a solution. The Journal sent an email in advance of the switch, but they didn’t contact me to let me know there was a problem with the new carrier. I had to contact them — repeatedly.
3. Reach out to your best customers personally. Imagine how differently this story might turned out if someone — anyone — from the Journal had called me at my home or office to reassure me that they knew about the problem and were working hard to resolve it for me. That never happened.
4. Provide another solution while the disruption is taking place. Something is usually better than nothing and the Journal got this part right: At least I was offered online access.
5. Avoid generic excuses. Almost every live chat I had with members of the Journal staff followed a predictable script, mostly apologizing for my inconvenience and telling me they were trying to solve the problem. I could almost recite the dialogue along with them. It felt rote and impersonal.
6. Keep customers informed. This is especially important if the service issue continues longer than anticipated. The only contact I received from the Journal regarding this problem was in response to my complaints. There was no proactive customer outreach.
7. Show the customer you truly care. If even one person on the Journal staff, especially the person who handled my subscription cancellation, had expressed genuine concern about my situation and acknowledged their desire to keep a decades-long customer, they might have saved the relationship.

Service problems don’t have to cost you a customer. If you plan ahead, communicate effectively and show people how much you value their business, you can turn a service problem into an opportunity to increase customer loyalty.

Will I still read the Journal? Yes, online. But after more than 20 years, I’ll no longer be looking for the print edition in my driveway. And that’s too bad for the Journal and me.

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Jean M. Gianfagna is a marketing strategy expert and the founder and president of Gianfagna Strategic Marketing which provides marketing strategy and creative services to leading business-to-business and consumer marketers. Read her blog for more marketing tips at


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