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Customer Success in a Crisis: When Retention is Everything

Mike Cardamone
July 17, 2020

If you have a customer success team, get ready to go into overdrive - even as the economy re-opens post-COVID. Whenever a crisis looms, there is a lot riding on your ability to keep customers. While your team should also look for new revenue channels, customer success is more critical than ever.

That said, customer success will also face the weirdest possible challenges during a crisis. So we’ve compiled a few things to expect when a crisis hits, some tactics you can try to increase customer retention, and suggestions on what not to do.

What to expect from customers during a crisis

In a crisis, people respond to reach outs differently. Even as you are acting in the best interest of your customers, reaching to see if they need help, keep these few things in mind.

Be prepared to not hear back from customers: Sometimes, they just won’t get back to you because they have a lot going on (or, sadly, may no longer be either employed or in business).

Customers will only care about cost-savings or revenue generation: Any other form of reach out will likely fall on deaf ears.

You will not be able to solve every problem: Don’t pretend you can, either. Be clear where you can help, if at all.

Real, human reach outs matter more than automation: Even at scale, make sure you’re communicating as if it’s only going to one person.

Arm yourself with knowledge

Crises might mean traditional customer success tactics won’t work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help at all.

Look for news about your champion or the company specifically: See if you can identify any direct impacts on clients. If not, make sure you’re aware of the situation from a general perspective so you’re not caught unawares.

Do research on the crisis itself: Look at general trends about what industries, business types/sizes, or geographies are most impacted. Stay up to date on the latest news as it pertains to clients.

Think about retention levers: If you’ve got contract renewals in the next 6 months, you have to think about retention levers:

  • Make changing subscriptions easy, but churning hard. Some clients may need to increase usage. Many others may need to decrease. But a downgrade is better than a churn because it was impossible to downgrade.
  • Consider what features or updates you can provide to all users, regardless of contract date, to act as a preventative measure against churn.
  • Provide discounts, if possible, for paying up front or signing longer contracts.

Keep internal communications tight: A big part of customer success is knowing what you can provide to clients and how, if at all, the crisis is impacting operations. Make sure you know what’s going on.

What not to do

Everyone makes mistakes, often regardless of intention. However, a mistake in a crisis could lead customers to churn based on frustration alone.

Don’t remove features: It could ruin your brand. If the platform is “non-essential,” you’ll bother people who are already plenty bothered by other things. If it is essential, you risk being accused of profiteering.

Don’t forget about lower tier customers: A swarm of churn from lower tier customers could add up to significant losses for the company. Look for scalable ways to engage such as webinars, emails, or published guides.

Don’t send canned emails: Edit notes with empathy. Ask yourself: if you received that note, would you actually think the person cared for you… or are they just covering their backsides? If it’s the latter, edit more.

Turn off the drip campaign: Chances are the excited drip campaign you had planned will come off as tone-deaf. Save yourself the risk - and effort - of a lengthy drip campaign and switch to manual sending for the time being.

Crisis success requires humanity

This advice is based on best practices, but the thing about crises is that they have a way of turning best practices on their heads. Instead of taking this as prescriptive, take it as guidance for where to start. Ultimately, though, humanity is what will help you - and customers - get through any crisis.

As you move ahead, it’s normal to be freaking out about lost revenue. Just remember customers likely feel the same way. Even if you’re in a lucky spot of increased demand due to the crisis, customers will no doubt be stressed, worried, and anxious, if not just plain exhausted. In times like these, there are many ways to communicate, including putting it all on pause and allowing everyone time to breathe.

In figuring out your next tactic, keep in mind the strongest option you have is being as thoughtful as possible.


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