How to handle a customer divorce

How do you say goodbye to a customer who no longer wants you?

Smart marketers realize that ex-customers can help or hurt your brand depending on how you treat them when they want to leave. Here are two examples: one from a company that does not understand this reality, and the other from one who does.

The Bad: Earthlink

I recently decided to drop Earthlink for my Internet access at home. I grew tired of its bad service and of being harassed by my friends (“You use Earthlink? They still around? I’ll bet you’re a big fan of AOL, too.”)

After some easy surfing online, I found a phone number to call in order to drop my account. Well, wouldn’t you know? Right off the bat, I’m in phone-tree hell. After enduring the usual awkward voice prompts (“What are you calling about? Please say one of the following options”) and a lengthy hold time, I got through to a human being — who, of course, was disappointed to learn that I was calling to say goodbye.

The Earthlink dude subjected me to a battery of questions about why I wanted to drop the service and how come I wasn’t satisfied when his records showed I had had several conversations with its tech support team. He wanted to open up the service logs and discuss each issue I’d encountered and why those issues were not resolved.

I explained that the very fact those issues (some going back years) were not resolved was good enough reason for me to look elsewhere for service, and at this point it was just time for me to move on . . . so please, what was the next step to do that?

He transferred me to someone else in the billing department.

So the next Earthlink dude again subjected me to a battery of questions about why I wanted to drop the service – kind of like a rinse and repeat of my dialogue with the first Earthlink dude. Earthlink Dude #2 then warned me about all the emails to my dead account that would go unanswered forever (as if I always wanted to read those unsolicited offers to enhance my manhood).

And then he offered me a service that would allow me to check my emails even after I had dropped Earthlink (for a monthly fee, of course). So here’s what happened:

Me: “I have switched to another email provider, so let’s not worry about that. I know you have a job to do, but let’s just use this time to cancel my account.”

Him: “I would like to transfer you to tech support to discuss your issues at this point.”

Me: “Um, no. I’m really done.”

Him: “Then I must put you on hold for awhile to complete this transaction.”

Me: “How long?”

Him: “Just awhile.”

Me: “But we’re done.  Please. I’ve been on the line awhile. I just want to stop being a customer.”

Him: “I need to get information and confirm with Earthlink.”

On, and on . . . and on the conversation went. Eventually I was liberated (I think – I’ll really know when I stop getting billed for service.)

The Good: Netflix

I needed to do some budget cutting last year. Alas, I had to say goodbye to Netflix at least for awhile. Netflix made it easy – but also difficult, in a good way — to say goodbye.

The easy part: you just go online and drop your account by yourself. Just a few clicks and you are done. No muss, no fuss, no pushback, no guilt trip. The site uses clear but friendly language letting you know that you will be missed.

But Netflix makes you think before you drop your account. Via an online interface, Netflix offers you a few alternatives for saving money before you go away, like scaling back your subscription. The offer is not done in an annoying way, more like “Before you go, have you thought about these alternatives?”

And, if you truly do want to stop being a customer, Netflix offers to save your personal preferences for your account in case you want to return some day. Brilliant. In essence, Netflix is saying, “We’re sorry to see you go, but we won’t forget you if you want to come back.”

And after that, Netflix gently follows up with special offers just in case you might want to return – a great approach that only makes me wonder if customers might be tempted to drop Netflix in order to be courted again.

The lesson? Customers can be brand ambassadors or detractors long after they do business with you. Netflix understands. Earthlink does not.