How to Win Back Customer Defectors

Image: Angus Greig

Researchers from University of Groningen, University of Mannheim, and SAP Germany published a new paper in the Journal of Marketing that explores the potential benefits of winning back lost customers and the best strategies for accomplishing that goal.

The study forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing is titled “Tolerating and Managing Failure: An Organizational Perspective on Customer Reacquisition Management” and is authored by Arnd Vomberg, Christian Homburg, and Olivia Gwinner.

Do attempts to regain lost customers pay off? Experts report that the costs of reaching out to lost customers are generally far lower than the costs of contacting new customers. In addition, the chance of winning back a lost customer is up to eight times greater than of acquiring a new customer. In recognition of these advantages, McDonald’s announced plans to invest from $150,000 to $700,000 per location in the U.S. to win back lost customers.

However, experts also report that customers can defect strategically. Customers defect because they anticipate improved offers such as lower prices from competitors. In such a scenario, a firm’s win-back activities could unnecessarily lower firm revenues. In addition, resources are misallocated if win-back offers to defected customers provoke negative attitudes in loyal customers (e.g., feelings of unfairness if loyal customers pay higher prices than defected customers).

Using a cross-industry data set, the research team reports that reacquisition increases firm profits. The positive outcomes of customer reacquisition such as increased revenues more than offset the costs of customer reacquisition management such as price concessions.

However, the study also demonstrates that managers need to understand the important role that a company’s culture plays in effective customer win-back. While winning back lost customers can lead to increased profits, win-back processes are often unpleasant for employees. Vomberg explains that “Employees likely perceive customer defection as an undesirable occurrence. Usually, employees do not freely and deliberately discuss their mistakes. They may fear blame from colleagues or punishment by superiors. Thus, company cultures that reward success and punish failures can instill reluctance in employees to address customer defections.”

The study demonstrates that successful customer reacquisition management requires a failure-tolerant organizational culture that encourages a constructive treatment of failures. In failure-tolerant cultures, employees feel free to voice ideas, discuss customer defections openly, and assume responsibility for the reacquisition process. Such feelings of responsibility spur employees to work harder, be more creative, and act unconventionally when reacquiring customers. As a result, employees address more defections and increase win-back success.

However, failure tolerance can also have a boomerang effect: High levels of failure tolerance reduce win-back success. Highly failure-tolerant cultures can induce laxness in employees. Once employees have internalized a tolerance for failure, they may make decisions with less due diligence and effort, provoking more and increasingly severe failures in customer relationships. More and increasingly severe failures can create irrecoverable damage to win-back success.

Win-back guidelines also increase win-back success. Such guidelines establish and enforce strict formal rules and procedures that employees must follow when reacquiring customers. These guidelines help employees detect customer defection, formulate expected actions, and outline monitoring activities to ensure learning for future reacquisition attempts. Homburg adds, “Importantly, formal reacquisition guidelines do not conflict with motivational effects that failure tolerance raises in employees. Instead, the guidelines help unfold the full potential of failure tolerant cultures. In other words, such guidelines help employees structure the otherwise unstructured context of customer reacquisition management.”

These findings have managerial implications. First, even if customer acquisition and retention management are well-established in company practice, managers should stimulate reacquisition activities. Addressing failures, shortcomings, and defections is likely less appealing than acquiring new customers, so win-back endeavors must be encouraged. Second, to benefit from reacquisition activities, Gwinner suggests that “… managers organize for customer reacquisition management. Managers need to establish cultures that are open to failure. However, managers need to be aware that failure tolerance can create “too-much-of-a-good-thing” so that high levels of failure tolerance reduce reacquisition performance. Thus, managers also need to recognize that failure tolerance is not a substitute for management.” Third, currently only few companies have comprehensive reacquisition guidelines in place. Because those guidelines steer employees towards successful win-back and also amplify the performance effects of failure-tolerance cultures, managers should establish reacquisition guidelines.

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