We invest so much time and money into creating great experiences to onboard customers. But we rarely give the same care to the experiences of customers who want to end their relationship.

As part of our Leaders in Change series, we invited author and product leader Joe Macleod to talk about the value of ending relationships with consumers.

As Joe points out, this might seem an odd thing for a business to focus on. But ignoring this inevitable part of the customer lifecycle stunts engagement, and has some huge side effects on the world around us, impacting everything from brand through to climate change.

Ending actions

Many of the products we customers use don’t make it easy to stop using them. This might be because the link you need is hidden in dark UX patterns, or requires you to sit through a sales interview to end your contract.

Or because it just isn’t clear what you’re supposed to do at the end of the relationship. By way of example, Joe showed us a slide of some typical consumer electronics packaging.

There’s a lot of information on here, but none of it means very much. In fact, no one in the room knew the ‘wheelie bin with a cross through it’ symbol didn’t just mean you shouldn’t throw it away, but rather that it was a WEEE(Waste Electric & Electronic Equipment) symbol. This means you can take it to an electronics retailer to be recycled. Great idea, but it’s definitely not well-communicated.

There’s also an irony to going to so much effort to highlight that the packaging is eco-friendly while keeping the eco-credentials of the product inside obscured.

It’s a lack of clear action for the customer that means that so many electronics are disposed of improperly, in landfills and the like. And, as our electronics have come to contain so much of our personal information, many people are not sure what to do with them, and so simply keep them in a kitchen drawer graveyard of sorts. There’s no ending.

This failure to really end customer experiences can have some really unpleasant outcomes – for example, challenges for users in removing content shared with others, or previously online has led to the rise of revenge porn, which can have a devastating reputational and psychological impact.

Back to business

Most customer acquisition models are single engagement models – they assume a permanent ‘customer’ status to everyone they onboard.

And that used to work pretty well. If we consider financial services products – it used to be the case that most people paid one mortgage and one pension. They were lifetime customers. But times have changed, and paying attention to customer off-boarding is a competitive differentiator.

For example, gyms are well known for being difficult to end experiences with, with 40% of people saying they’ve had trouble cancelling a contract.

In reaction to this, new chains like EasyGym have launched that focus on advertising their contract-free model, and they are seeing impressive growth in a crowded industry – because they are listening to their customers.

At the other end of the scale, you have products and services that try to convince customers to stay with them for life, even if it’s a bad idea, for the customer, and the business. Some infamous examples include Dominos Pizza in Russia offering free pizza for anyone who got a tattoo of their logo .Then promptly pulling the offer four days later, leaving their reputation damaged, and lots of Russians regretting their latest inking. Similarly, back in the 1980s, American Airlines offered a lifetime of travel for £250k. One of these ticket holders has run up travel costs of an incredible £21 million And he is one of 63 ticket holders.

But, if done appropriately, a guarantee can be a powerful customer engagement tool; KIA’s seven-year warranty has helped them double their market share.

Consumers have more choice than ever – and with the rise of comparison engines, and accessible review mechanisms, people are more empowered than ever to choose the companies they want to utilise, and for how long.

For that reason, there’s a huge opportunity for businesses in helping their customers offboard painlessly, giving them agency in this process, and encouraging future engagement.

The value of ending experiences in the right way

Joe went through a number of practical tips for off-boarding customers.

1. Get used to the fact that people might leave you. He suggested:

  • Creating post service personas based on departed customers
  • Setting ‘aftermath’ targets for departing customers that give you insight into the expected and unexpected reasons customers are leaving
  • Moving to a customer acquisition model that assumes multiple engagements, and considers different endings

2. Follow the law. And then do more.

There have been some significant regulatory efforts made in the last few years to pressure companies to off-board their customers more effectively (or at least, less poorly), such as the Current Account Switching Service, the Energy Supplier Switching Service and GDPR.

However, these are largely seen as punitive regulations for businesses rather than opportunities, and so the experience often lacks satisfaction for the customer. Joe gave the example of a mortgage – your provider is required to tell you that you’ve paid it off. This is a 20-30 year relationship in which you’ve paid them many thousands of pounds of interest. And you’ll very likely get nothing more than a brief letter written in legalese. Where’s the satisfaction in that experience?

3. Consider the future of your products

How long will people use your product? What happens to it afterwards? How could you communicate this to your customers to help them end their experience with your product effectively?

Signposting the end of a relationship for your customer is a powerful move that helps give them agency in the decision to end, or not end their relationship with you – for example, KIA’s warranty has seen an increase in repeat purchases. It’s made clear to every customer how long they’ll get with their car, and that clarity gives customers the confidence to come back to KIA, even in a crowded market. And even if they don’t come back, if they are clear on what your product will deliver, and for how long, you’re unlikely to get a negative review.

Thinking about getting rid of customers is new territory for most. It’s a challenge to show the commercial value. But it is there. Those companies who have focused on ending experiences effectively are succeeding, often in saturated markets, and as customers demand more from the companies they interact with, customer off-boarding will only become more important to modern businesses.

This was one of my favourite talks from our Leaders In Change series, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Joe’s book Ends: Why we overlook endings for humans, products, services and digital. And why we shouldn’t. I do have a couple of copies stashed away, so if you’d like one, get in touch and I’ll see what I can do…

And if you want to know about future events we’re running, please get in touch at be@wearefutureheads.co.uk, I’d love to hear from you.

About Joe Macleod

Joe Macleod has decades of product development experience across digital, product and service sectors. Previously Head of Design at the award-winning studio Ustwo. He then spent 3 years on the Closure Experiences project researching, writing and publishing the Ends book He now speaks at conferences across the world and is the founder of andEnd – the world’s first customer ending business.

You can connect with Joe on LinkedIn and Twitter, and find out more about andEnd via the website.

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