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Customers Flee for a Reason. You Need to Give Them Reasons to Stay. You have to listen.

By Rebekah Iliff Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Trying to understand why a once engaged customer breaks up with you is often clouded with bad information, not enough data, misguided assumptions, and ultimately, unmet expectations. Much like analyzing any kind of relationship -- romantic or otherwise -- it's extremely difficult to identify just when the initial breakdown occurred. Typically the reasons are complex and convergent: meaning, not black and white but, usually, a result of compounding issues over time.

Sometimes customers just leave, seemingly out of nowhere. Particularly in the early stages of building a company, this can be especially brutal. Oftentimes you know they're largely unhappy, but they remain stage-five clingers for life simply because they're too lazy or loyal to move in any one direction. Maybe they're hostage to your business, waiting for a new alternative to present itself?

Related: Your Business Rises and Falls on Customer Experience

As centralizing customer experience becomes a core business tenet, and delivering superior customer service remains an important conversion and retention tactic for companies at any stage, we are best served to understand the four main types of customers, the origins of which can be attributed to Albert O. Hirschman -- exit, voice, loyal and neglect.

In a recent conversation with Qualtrics head of CX and industry thought leader, Luke Williams, we spoke about Hirschman's framework, what companies can learn from thinking about customers this way, and how it's no longer enough to lump customers into the binary "happy" and "unhappy" categories.

By gaining extreme insight into why customers flee, your organization can identify solutions and put recovery strategies in order to mitigate risks in the future. Here's what I learned from Williams.

Why Customers Flee

1. Exit customer.

Without warning, or a chance to make it up to them, some customers leave for good. Perhaps your main advocate within the organization found a new job during the renewal process, and the contract wasn't seen by the replacement as a high priority. Another scenario: The customer didn't love your product or hate your product, but was indifferent; so when it came to decision making time, the "meh" won.

Successful customer experience programs require an ongoing, rigorous analysis long after the buying process is complete so that companies are not caught off guard by unexpected exits. Companies, like people, are not typically sociopathic. In other words, barring some anomaly, a thoughtful CX strategy will be able to identify an exit customer if the right levers are in place.

Things to look for: dropped purchases or a decline in average "basket" size; social media conversations where the potential exit customers is voicing opinions to their network but not to the company directly.

Related: 4 Ways You Can Use AI to Enhance Every Step of the Customer Journey

2. Voice customer.

Ernest Hemingway once stated: "I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." This is a solid yet simple truth. Most people, or brands in this case, are terrible listeners.

Though firms might be annoyed by complaining customers, at least they care enough to vocalize their needs. My suggestion? Take the advice and win the war. Unlike the exit customer, who silently creeps out like the Irishman at a party, those of the voice variety give you blatant signals that they are not getting their needs met.

While it's often tempting to write-off these "negative Nancies" and "complaining Carls," an advanced CX program will identify them, listen to them, make an effort to solve their perceived need, then provide feedback in terms of the solution. Voice customers don't leave because they aren't happy or because they aren't getting their way, they typically leave because they aren't being heard.

Imagine the competitive advantage of listening -- really listening -- to your customers. It may seem simple, but it's a tried and true tactic for averting churn. Additionally, these voice customers are brand champions in the making.

3. Loyal customer.

Some customers will stay loyal, despite bad experiences. They will say nothing and hope things get better. But loyalty, even long-term loyalty, doesn't necessarily mean a healthy relationship with that customer, nor does it indicate that your brand is serving customer needs aptly.

In a sense, loyalty customers are your worst enemy in terms of understanding actual versus perceived issues within an organization. Moreover, if your point person for an upcoming contract is a loyal customer yet is replaced by someone who doesn't have the same history, you may find yourself in a churn situation.

Here are a few ways you can avoid this. Use thoughtful engagement strategies, loyalty and rewards programs to remind them why they love you. Additionally, provoke them into providing feedback so you can learn what a reasonably-satisfied customer can add to the conversation in terms of making you great.

Related: 4 Steps to Getting More Clients Right Now

4. Neglect customer.

We've all likely read about the long-term, negative effects on children who suffer from emotional and physical neglect. Not having received the attention or support needed, in adulthood they often lack confidence or a sense of belonging. The neglect customer is really no different.

Some of these customers will stay, but they expect things to get worse. They begin seeking alternatives and evolve into future exit customers. Why? Because for whatever reason, their customer experience has been that of a transaction, rather than a relationship. Without a deep sense of belonging or a relationship with the brand, they have no loyalty or voice, and thus are always on the verge of -- on a whim -- taking a hike.

How do you identify neglect customers? Well, first and foremost, take a good look at your organization's process around customer touch points. How much attention are you giving your customers on a regular basis and what is the nature of that attention? If it's just a standard email coming from your CRM system, you may want to rethink things.

Chances are, you can bring a neglect customer back into the fold, provided your product or service is giving them what they need; and they feel as thought the brand cares about the relationship aspects, not just the transaction.

If humans had one superpower, I'd argue that a very useful one would be the ability to pinpoint an exact time and place at which a relationship shifted on its axis, and the world went sideways; and subsequently, how to get the train back on the tracks. But alas, we do not possess that ability. However, in a business setting, we now have access to technology and structured data sets that give us a more accurate depiction of when and why our customer relationships go awry.

Rebekah Iliff

Chief Strategy Officer for AirPR

Rebekah Iliff is the chief strategy officer for AirPR, a technology platform to increase public-relations performance that serves Fortune 500 and fast growing technology companies. Previously, she was the CEO of talkTECH Communications, where she created an industry-first methodology for emerging technology companies which positioned talkTECH as one of the fastest growing, launch-only PR firms in the U.S. Iliff holds a B.A. in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago, and an M.A. in organizational management and applied community psychology from Antioch University at Los Angeles (AULA).

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