When your customers are silent, do you take that as a sign they are happy? If your company has the attitude that “no news is good news” when it comes to your customers, here’s a surprise—no news is rarely good news.

A surprisingly number of your customers may at this very moment be at-risk. They may be looking for another vendor. Maybe they simply feel like it’s time to “try something new.” Or that “there’s got to be a better way.” More likely it’s because they’re feeling like you simply don’t hear them when they voice their concerns. And, once they feel unheard, they’re at-risk. 

What is an at-risk customer?

Most of your at-risk customers are silent or unresponsive. Other at-risk customers may complain excessively. Take those complaints as a gift. Customers don’t complain just for the sake of complaining. They are voicing a problem.  Ignore those complaints and you put the relationship at risk.

Those in sales and customer service actually welcome the complaining customer. If they articulate a problem, we can fix it. Unfortunately, many at-risk customers do the opposite – they don’t communicate. At-risk customers go dark. They stop being responsive, and they ignore attempts to reach out to them. Such customers will avoid returning phone calls, put off regular meetings, and if they do schedule a meeting, may often cancel.

Other symptoms of the at-risk customer include: 

  • Decline in volume of orders.
  • Rumors through the grapevine that they are checking out a competitor.
  • Vague references about not being happy with the relationship.

Spotting the at-risk customer

Companies that train their sales staff in consultative selling can mobilize those skills to spot the at-risk customer and deal with their concerns before they jump ship. It’s all about listening, which starts with the sale, but has to continue well afterwards.

Prevention is always the best way to address a problem. It’s your responsibility to make sure the customer is satisfied after the sale – not theirs.

But, even for companies that understand and promote support after the sale, problems do arise that threaten the relationship. If a customer is dissatisfied, the best way to address it is quickly, openly and honestly. If the perception of the customer is that the solution you recommended isn’t working, you have to identify the core issue that’s causing their dissatisfaction.

There are times when an account is at-risk because the customer’s decision makers do not understand the full picture. Purchasing managers, for example, may only look at price without understanding the reason for a cost differential. Once that becomes an issue, that account is at-risk. At that point, sales reps may need to seek out help from others in the company who understand the usage of the product. If a purchasing agent becomes non-responsive, that’s a signal to reach an intermediary within the company who can help make the case for the product with the purchasing agent. Opening alternative channels within the same customer can also help companies discover why they are considering a new vendor or solution. Finding a new advocate inside that company can help uncover problems and deal with the issue directly.

Keeping the at-risk customer is good business

Dealing with the at-risk customer and saving those accounts is simply a matter of good business. It costs a lot more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one.

And, that customer service experience is expected to become more and more important. In fact, Walker, Indianapolis, Ind., forecasts that by 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.

Changing vendors or looking for new solutions is also difficult for the customer. When going through a consultative sales process, you identify the customer’s needs and come up with a solution to their problems. If that new process results in a new way of doing things, there will be disruption in the organization. Changing again will cause additional disruption. So, saving the relationship is an investment in making a mutually beneficial relationship work again.

Recovering when things go wrong

How do you rebuild the relationship with an at-risk customer? You solve the problem.  You address their dissatisfaction quickly and efficiently. Customers need to know that if something goes south, you’re going to take care of it.

Rebuilding the relationship often comes down to finding out the real reasons a customer is moving away from the relationship. Rebuilding may require some detective work. That means drilling down with your contact and others in the company to fix the problem and give the customer back his/her confidence in you.

Bringing back the at-risk customer

Can you bring the at-risk customer back into the fold? Definitely. Here’s three different examples of how to do so:

  • The situation was originally flagged by an inside sales rep, who noticed the customer wasn’t purchasing their normal volume of supplies the customer sells. The sales rep got in touch with the territory manager and the distributor to find out why. Through the distributor, they found out that the end-user believed the product was no longer doing its job. Once they understood the problem, they worked with the end user to provide a product that would work better in its desired applications. They got the customer back and continue to use the new product.
  • In another case, the relationship turned rocky after a price increase. A customer in the food industry was unhappy with the increase, and instead of discussing it with their distributor, they told members of a buying group that they intended to search for an alternative product. The customer became non-responsive. To understand the issue, start with some contacts in the buying group and reach out to purchasing agents.
  • Here’s a third example. A customer informed that some of the products were arriving with a broken piece. The solution was to redesign the packing materials, so that it would better protect the contents. Working with the carton manufacturer, we tested many designs. We shared the test results with our customer, and decided together upon a new packaging solution.

At-risk customers do not need to become former customers. Through a combination of detective work, listening, responding and adapting, it is possible to turn the at-risk customer into a solid, long-term customer.