There’s something about the idea of task forces that always makes me cringe.
A task force can mean a number of things, but in Customer Success, we use it to describe a gathering of different teams to deal with an issue that, if not solved, may lead to churn. So if you end up managing a number of successful task forces, you should feel pretty proud, right?
Which brings me back to the cringe part. Creating a task force means that we missed a red flag somewhere along the customer lifecycle. Somewhere along the line, a customer was neglected, communication was poor, expectations were not aligned. Off with the band aid: it means we messed up. Which is why the idea of a task force — especially a successful task force — is weird to me.
Usually, by the time people start thinking about churn, it’s already too late. Quitting a subscription or a service is not typically a snap judgement, especially in the B2B world. It’s often a months-long, cross-disciplinary imbroglio where companies consider other alternatives, decide which best fits their needs, and eventually make the switch. Weirdly enough, sometimes churn takes months simply because customers don’t realize they’re paying for a service they don’t use.
Then, at some point, the day comes: they’re gone.
It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon
Now, you could wait until these final moments, hoping for a Hail Mary pass that will prove your worth and change their mind. Or you could focus on customer retention instead.
Customer retention has to do satisfying and holding on to existing customers. It’s an interesting metric because it forces you to acknowledge that the sale isn’t done when customers sign the contract — it’s merely the start of a journey in which businesses must continuously refine services and products to meet the customer’s needs, and engage them in meaningful conversations. It’s about building valuable long-term relationships. Really valuable relationships: studies by Bain & Company and Harvard Business School have shown that even a 5% increase in customer retention can lead to increasing profits between 25 and 95%.
Try to avoid the need for task forces altogether, and keep in mind some tips to engage your customers throughout their journey.
Ten steps to a healthy customer relationship
1. Manage expectations
Don’t be afraid of being obvious or repeating yourself. An intro call is the perfect opportunity to revisit the customer’s expectations and clarify any outstanding questions they might have. It’s also the perfect way to start a fully transparent and honest relationship. Prepare a checklist so that you don’t miss any topic (tip: you can use the contract terms as a checklist).
2. Set up fortnightly calls
One of the biggest red flags on the customer journey are drops in customer activity and engagement. Having regular check-ins is a great way to keep the momentum going after onboarding.
They’re the best way to gather feedback, understand how happy your customer is with your product and how they are using it, teach them how to take advantage of all features, and tackle any issues that may arise. Ultimately, these calls allow you to be top of mind whenever a new opportunity arises.
3. Visit your customers
Not only because it shows how much you value them, but also because, as a friend so wisely told me, your competitors are probably doing the same. Plus, it’s always a great chance to widen your network inside a company.
Tip: before scheduling a visit, do some homework and look up interesting people you’d like to meet in the company. Then, when you schedule a visit, ask your point of contact to help you set up a meeting with them. I usually work closely with SDRs who help identify potential strategic partners — a successful visit will include at least 3 meetings.
4. Customize reports
Understand what information your customer values the most and share it. Even if they already have access to a report, dig deep to see if you spot any overlooked, valuable data.
Tip: anytime you identify relevant data that are missing from a report, be sure to share it internally. Chances are that information will also be relevant for more customers.
5. Create Business Reviews
Business reviews are the perfect opportunity for both you and your customer to review your work together so far, and insights generated during these sessions can be extremely useful for both parties.
Create a template which you can use repeatedly and fill out systematically. Focus on their progress and on how your product simplified their lives. After all, we have a natural tendency to focus on the hiccups in our relationships instead of what we’ve accomplished together.
6. Open the communication channels
It’s tempting to focus exclusively on one point of contact. But life is unpredictable — your counterpart might leave the company or change positions. If that happens, you need to be prepared. It’s much harder to build a relationship from scratch than to maintain multiple relationships in the same company. Take advantage of any on-site visits to your customer’s company to expand your network.
7. Work as partners
Create initiatives around topics that are relevant for both you and your customers, with joint webinars, guest articles, and events, always valuing your customer’s knowledge and highlighting it as much as possible.
Advise each other in your respective areas of expertise. Sometimes even small things — e.g., sharing an article or a podcast that you know they will enjoy and that will make their life easier — can have a big impact.
8. Show you care
A personal touch can go a long way. Last year, we sent out hand-written holiday cards with personal notes, and the feedback was extremely positive. Think about it, work takes up more than half of your waking day. If you don’t bring a little humanity into it, what’s the point?
9. Ask for feedback … and act on it
But don’t implement things just for the sake of it. If it’s not the right time to change or add a new feature, or if you’re working on something similar, let the customer know.
10. Keep them informed on company updates
Understand what each team has planned for that quarter and match those updates with the feedback you’ve received from customers.
At Unbabel, for example, we lost count of the requests to open an English-Czech community. We couldn’t do it right away — we had to gather enough volume to justify opening a new community. It took over a year after the first customer requested it, but when it finally happened, he was the first one to hear about it.
Task force, activated
Sometimes things don’t go as you expect. Even if you’re doing everything right, things will inevitably go wrong — a bug in the product that’s creating downtime, a customer who is unimpressed with the results. It’s not ideal, but it’s far from game over. When this happens, the single best thing you can do is to talk your customers through it. And if you decide to go forward with a task force, which can, depending on the problem, take anywhere from a week to a month, here’s a checklist to make the best out of it.
Identify the root cause of the issue, and then break it down into smaller, actionable items.
Find your internal champions. Too many people can lead to inefficiency, so be sure to find your champions — individuals who perform well under stress, who know how to escalate a problem, and who have the authority to make decisions.
Draw up a timeline, and share it with everyone, including your customer. This will distribute responsibility and accountability among the different champions, and give some much needed peace of mind to your customer.
Delegate tasks with clear guidelines.
Have regular check ins. At this point, you’ll be acting more as a project manager, making sure everything is on track so that there are no unpleasant surprises in the end.
Centralize the information. You’ll be working with different teams in different departments, making the project prone to some serious disorganization. Keep all the information in the same place.
It’s not over until your customer says it’s over. Once things start to stabilize, ask your customers if they’re ready to go back to business-as-usual. If the answer is “yes,” proceed to the next step.
Go for a drink with your team, and celebrate! Your team managed to turn the situation around and the customer is happy again. All is right in the world — take a moment to treat yourself!
Internal review of highs and lows – You can, and should, learn from every task force. And yet, the single most important question your team can ask is “What could we have done to avoid it?”.
So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye
Some customers will always slip through your fingers. After all, a certain amount of churn is perfectly natural. While you can try to offer alternatives — such as deactivating their account for a period of time, securely storing their data in case they ever decide to come back, or offering to transition to a cheaper plan — you won’t always be able to bargain your way out of churn. So when the time comes, leave it on good terms. Be polite, think about a meaningful way to say goodbye that reflects your brand values, and thank them for their business.
No matter how it turns out, be in it for the long haul. Sustainable customer retention strategies are shaping the future of customer experience. It’s not just common sense, it’s good business. Guide your customers through every step of the way, from the moment they first hear about you, through the trials and tribulations of the sales cycle, the euphoria of onboarding, and all the months that follow. Through every complaint, every bit of feedback, every renewed contract.
Until churn do you part.
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