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CUSTOMER SERVICE

Winning Back a Lost Customer

Tips on handling the loss of a major client.
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The hot debate: how to recover from the loss of a major client. The setting: a roundtable on customer service at this year's Inc. 500 conference, our annual get-together for the fastest-growing small companies.

The grieving party: participant Michael Twomey of American Teleconferencing Services (ATS). "We'll make up the sales loss, but it's devastating for the sales and support staff, who went all out," explained Twomey, chief operating officer of $5.5-million ATS in Overland Park, Kans. "The client gave us high scores on customer service, but we lost out to a competitor that gave the equipment away. So for these accounts, does service really matter?"

Well, yes and no, said our roundtable. Here's some of the advice offered by 22 participating executives:

"You probably lost the customer six months before. The relationship has usually soured by the time price becomes the issue."

"Go back to them in two months and get the account back. They'll stay with you forever if you can win them back."

"Perhaps offer to still solve problems for the lost client. Forgo the revenue until they realize who's really doing the work."

"The customer's perception is everything, so you constantly have to put information in front of them that shapes their image of your company. Start working on similar at-risk customers now."

"Let your target audience know who the 'bad guy' is and what his sales pitch sounds like so your customers will be prepared for it."

"Could you partner with some of these big competitors that are stealing accounts?"

"Get salespeople thinking more about what's a good prospect in the first place. You shouldn't waste time on or put as much effort into customers buying only on price."

"If customer service is top-notch, don't consider the loss a customer-service issue. It's a sales-and-marketing issue, part of playing the game; you can't win 'em all. Follow up later."

"The CEO sets the tone for handling bad news. You don't want employees to not care about losing a customer, no matter how small. But if the CEO lets employees know it wasn't their fault, employees will be OK."

"Make it easy for customers to come back to you. Agree to keep in touch with them. Never take an I-told-you-so stance. Customers will be grateful."

"Customer recognition is important to retaining business. Now and then invite your largest clients in to help solve a problem."

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