CUSTOMER SERVICE

5 Things That Drive Away Customers

Your product might be perfect, and your price might be right. But if you do these five things, your customers will run away. (Worse, they won't tell you why.)
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How often do you drive away customers without even realizing it?

I thought about this recently, when I had a bad experience in a local store. The salespeople were too busy to help, and there was only one register serving a long line of customers. They had the product I was looking for. I had cash in my hand. But I eventually walked out without buying anything.

That's a sad story from an entrepreneur's perspective. To gain insight into the small changes you can make to close more sales and improve satisfaction, I asked dozens of people--customers and entrepreneurs alike--for their biggest pet peeves.

Here are the top five things they said prompt customers to walk away:

1. Making customers wait

You can serve only so many people at once in most businesses. Customers get that. Still, they hate waiting, and three factors are scientifically proven to make waiting even worse:

  • When the wait takes longer than customers expect;
  • When they're forced to stand by idly, with no idea how long things will take;
  • When they perceive others who showed up after them are being served first.

There is a ton of research on this, and it makes for fun reading. The bottom line is that customers almost always prefer a "one line for all registers" approach, like most banks and airport check-in lines employ. Whether you're selling retail products or providing services, people just want to be treated quickly and fairly.

Here's how one tech firm addressed the issue. The founders of Qualtrics, an online data collection and analysis firm, told me that the rule in their office is that everyone, regardless of his or her job, is expected to answer customer calls by the third ring. If someone doesn't, a gong goes off in the office, and red sirens start blaring. Result? No more waiting.

2. Delivering only what you promise

Yes, you read that correctly. Sure, you need to keep your promises, but that's just the bare minimum. If you truly want to keep customers coming back, you need to wow them every time by offering them even more than they think is fair.

Here's an example: L.L. Bean is famous for its no-questions-asked return policy. (A few years ago, I put it to the test by returning a pair of boots I'd basically destroyed after wearing them every day for two months as an embedded reporter in Iraq.) Pretty impressive, but even L.L. Bean doesn't go as far as a company called Babiators, which makes sunglasses for kids. If you ever lose the sunglasses you buy from Babiators, it will replace them.

"In one of our customer surveys, parents expressed frustration about frequently losing their children's clothing or accessories," co-founder Molly Fienning told me. "Any concern that someone might take advantage of the guarantee is far outweighed by the many new brand ambassadors who are thrilled."

3. Being hard to contact

Time is money. Answering customer questions over and over can be frustrating. Why can't customers just check the FAQ on your website? Why don't they read directions or spend just a few minutes thinking things through before peppering you with questions?

The reason is pretty simple: Time is money for your customers, too. The last thing they want is to be herded into some kind of impersonal support option that shows you think your time is worth more than theirs.

How much do people hate this attitude? Enough that in his spare time, Kayak co-founder Paul English landed one million page views a month by creating a website, GetHuman, that helps people skip automated phone support and reach a real, live customer support person quickly. 

4. Selling to them constantly

Do you hate spam emails, telemarketing calls, and junk mail? Why would your customers be any different? They're being sold to from the second they wake up in the morning, and they're sick of it. As writer Mike Myatt put it:

"Clients are people not fish. Don't 'lure' or 'hook' them--engage them, listen to them and serve them. ... This is much more than a semantical argument--it's a philosophical shift in thinking, and a practical shift in acting."

It's hard to quantify exactly how much overly aggressive sales pitches cost you, but a Consumer Reports survey found that 64 percent of people admitted having walked out of a retail store because a salesperson was too pushy. Obviously you have to try to sell, but don't inundate your customers to the point that your pitch itself turns them off.

5. Being secretive and opaque

You might think it's reasonable that you want to keep some information about your business confidential, and you may even be right. On the other hand, customers know that there's a fine line between keeping things secret and ripping them off.

As an example, check out this recent article about TrueCar. Its customers' top fear? That car dealers might know more than they do and thus charge them too much. So what can you do differently? Maybe try a little transparency.

For example, my colleague Jeff Haden recently wrote about Buffer, which publishes all of its employees' take-home pay on the Internet. I talked with the founders of Bob's Watches, who display their exact profit margin on every product on their website. If you have a Rolex GMT Master II for sale, for example, they'll pay you $8,000. If you want to buy the same watch from them, their price is $9,495. (They say they won't negotiate.)

"[T]here was a huge pain point in the industry, in that you never really knew if you were getting a good deal when selling or buying ... a watch, so we wanted to kind of lift the veil," co-founder Greg Greiner explained.

Want to read more, make a suggestion, or be featured in a future column? Contact me or sign up for my weekly email.

Last updated: Feb 14, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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