When you’re looking at the future of your business, it can pay to take a moment to look backwards. Specifically, focusing on the customers who used to do business with you can improve your relationships with current customers — and give you a surprisingly affordable way to grow your business.
Customers leave for any number of reasons. Those who were dissatisfied or angry with your business probably won’t come back. But the rest — those who simply may have been tempted to do business with one of your competitors or those you just didn’t work hard enough to keep — may be willing to return and do business with you again.
Going after those ex-customers is well worth the effort. After all, they thought well of you enough to do business with you in the first place. Just as important, they already know who you are and what you can do, so you don’t have to invest a lot of money to introduce yourself and explain the basics.
You do have to be careful that you don’t fall into the mindset that affects many business people. When a customer leaves for a competitor, they react as though the customer were a wayward spouse, and become hurt or bitter. It’s easy to feel slighted when a customer goes somewhere else. But in most cases, it’s really not about you. It’s about them and their perceived needs. And I’ll wager that you don’t think twice before starting to eat at a different restaurant or buying from a different supplier.
If you start to treat those former customers like a jilted boyfriend or girlfriend, they’re not likely to come back — even if they want to. Your attitude is critical, so banish any trace of resentment or jealousy. After all, it’s not a romantic relationship. It’s a business deal.
Re-establishing any kind of relationship begins when one party reaches out to the other. In the case of a past customer, it’s your job to begin that process. And sometimes, simply taking that first step is all that’s needed.
If your customer base is small, try a phone call or an email. Tell the former customer that you haven’t heard from him or her in a while, and you wanted to check on them. How are they doing? Is there anything they need that you can help with? Yes, some may react as though it’s an intrusion, but those are the people who probably wouldn’t return anyway. Most will appreciate the follow-up.
One way to bring an ex-customer back into the fold is to make a special offer. Remember that it costs a lot less to market to people who already know you, so making that offer will probably cost a lot less than what you’d invest in landing a new customer.
Suppose you run a heating and cooling business. You could drop a note to customers who haven’t been active for two or three years that says something like: “It’s been a while since we’ve had the opportunity to help you with your home comfort needs. We appreciate your past trust with us, and we hope you’ll turn to us for your future plans. As a way of thanking you for doing business with us in the past, we’d like to make a special offer. We’ll perform a free ‘clean and check’ on your furnace. That’s normally a $69 service call, but because we value your business, we won’t charge you for the service.”
You may be giving up the profit on a service call, but a well-trained technician can nearly always spot opportunities for future service or sales. More important, you’ve reestablished a relationship with the customer in a friendly, non-threatening way, so he or she will be more likely to call when more work is needed, or to refer you to the neighbors.
Paying attention to ex-customers can help you hold on to current ones, too. Contact your former customers to see why they left in the first place. You can develop and mail a simple survey, or even call them on the phone. Pay attention to patterns in their answers. If half the people you talk to mention that your customer service was rude or your sales reps just didn’t seem to care, you’ve received some valuable insight. Tackling those internal issues may keep other customers from leaving, and it will probably cost a lot less than a big effort to attract new customers.