Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Maintaining Customer Trust Amidst Turnover

July 31, 2019 Nicole Dingley

I got broken up with last week. There were no warning signs or clues that our relationship was coming to an end. In fact, I was happily chirping away when she broke the news. 

“So… I’m not going to be doing hair anymore after Saturday. I’m moving to California to start a career in design.”

I sat in stunned silence, feeling especially vulnerable with my head covered in dye and a crown of foils. I stared at her in the mirror and waited for the punchline. It didn’t come. 

My hair stylist was leaving me? After five long years together? And she was giving me a week’s notice?  

As the old song goes, breaking up is hard to do, even when it comes to professional relationships. Circumstances like territory realignments, resignations, and promotions frequently cause us to part ways with our customers. While it may just seem like “business as usual” for us, these break ups hold can hold greater significance to our customers. Why? Because they’re disruptions to relationships built upon trust and built over time. 

Replacing a customer’s dedicated contact doesn’t replace the history the customer shared with his or her rep. It took time for the pair to learn to work together with ease: the two-line emails understood without a back story, thoughtful reminders about project deadlines, shared eyerolls at obnoxious technical glitches, even the occasional “have a great vacation” texts. These common experiences create an invisible bond, making customer collaboration predictable and safe. When this bond is stripped away, the customer can be left feeling unprotected, even a little unloved. Depending on whether the customer’s loyalty lies with the company or the company’s representative, the chance of losing him or her may start to spike. 

This increased risk of churn makes it crucial to handle customer transitions with care. You may not be able to completely eliminate the burn of a break-up, but a clear transition map helps increase customer confidence. Here are five steps for getting it right. 

  1. Set the stage. While it feels good for customers to have a single person at a company dedicated to helping them, this exclusivity creates long-term risk for the company. The solution is to make sure that customers have two or three contacts that they know and trust. That way, if their dedicated contact gets promoted or transfers, they don’t feel as if they’ve been completely abandoned. You can do this by simply including a designated colleague on strategic meetings or quarterly business reviews. 
  2. Give it time. Don’t wait until the last minute to share the news of a departure. As soon it’s allowable, prepare a broad email communication to share with all impacted customers. This early notice will give them time to process the change. Early reactions could elicit a range of emotions: indifference, annoyance, fear, even anger. Yet the sooner the customer knows, the more space they have to move to a better psychological state.
  3. Make it personal. Each customer/colleague relationship is different, full of unique memories, challenges, and experiences. Following the early broadcast of the departure news, reach out with a more personal message to individual customers via phone or email. Acknowledge the experiences you’ve shared and offer gratitude for the professional wins you’ve accomplished together. This can soften the sting of the change, letting them know that they’re valued. 
  4. Share a plan. Much of the anxiety around a transition lives in the fear of the unknown. Feelings of “what is going to happen now?” are the breeding ground of doubt and potential churn. You can mitigate this issue by clearly outlining the next steps for the customer. Provide a timeline that indicates milestones for when and how knowledge will be transferred, including who will be working on the customer’s account and why he or she will be a reliable resource. If possible, include a testimonial from someone currently working with the customer’s new contact. It won’t replace the customer’s own experience, but it will serve as confirmation of continued excellent support. 
  5. Talk it out. Don’t just tiptoe away from the account once the transition plan is shared. Schedule a meeting to talk through the details with the customer and his or her new representative. Step through the history of the account and give the customer ample opportunity to offer ideas on what is most important and what else needs to be included. Make sure that the new representative follows up with a note that shows he or she has been listening by including key take-aways from the meeting. 

The bottom line is that change is never easy, but it’s within your control to make a transition transparent and smooth. Ultimately, the change presents an opportunity for your company to shine. Customers will see that there are not one but many top-notch colleagues at the company. This increases their confidence and their desire to continue the relationship long-term. Breaking up may be hard to do, but it’s also a chance to break through to a new level of connection.

About the Author

Vice President, Wiley //

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