Divorcing your customers

By: Jonathan Clark

Date: 2 August 2011

Scrabble letters spelling divorceSorry, we are not prepared to serve you...

Not something you hear often at the moment. But it’s coming.

Several things struck me recently and they were all brought about by the magnificent example of the Massachusetts sisters, as reported by Helen Edwards at Passionbrand earlier this year. In essence, two sisters had returned an “incredible amount of items” through the store’s generous returns policy. The company, Value City Department Stores, simply could not afford to deal with them anymore, so the retailer drew the relationship to an end. “Given your history of excessive returns and chronic unhappiness with our service we have decided that this is the best way of avoiding any further problems with you.”

Now this is unusual, but for how much longer? 

When you consider most aspects of our lives, we need a lot of good behaviour to get by. If I misbehave on an aeroplane then the airlines share information on me and I won’t be able to fly. If I can’t get car insurance I can’t drive, as insurers share information. Want a mortgage? You’d better hope your credit score is good, they’ll look. Renting: well, landlords now have a site where “problem” tenants are logged. How long will it be before someone sets up an “individual human behavioural log monitor thing”? All of our past misdemeanours, late payments and broken promises, all in one place. Ouch.

But for the most part at the moment, the customer is still king. And when companies get things wrong, they find their failures will be plastered over social media sites. Not good.

So why would a brand want to divorce a customer? Some things are obvious. If the company was, frankly, being taken for a ride – such as in the case of the sisters – then it makes perfect sense to cut its losses.

But protecting brand value in the longer term is also a motivator. After all, look at what it has cost Burberry in time and money to reposition the brand and shake off the chavs and football hooligans who’d ruined its premium image. Right now Cyprus is attempting to reposition itself as an upmarket family resort, playing down the Ayia Napa image of a party capital. You could argue both Cyprus and Burberry have taken action to “divorce” customers who threaten future brand value. It has certainly paid off for Burberry.

So which customers will be refused service next? I believe it’s not a long way off when serial “unfair” complainers and bloggers will find themselves with fewer and fewer choices of product and service. And if they do find someone who will “take them and their custom” they will pay a big premium. Financial Services already has this one covered! Big APRs for customers with poor credit histories.

So that’s my point. Many companies really are offering great service and value, and are really on top of customer relationships. I think, as customers, we all need to start considering how we deal with our selected favourite suppliers and companies. We really do need to start to value them more.

It will not be long before our track record is scrutinised in huge detail, and yes, we may get the call that says our custom is not wanted. How’s that going to feel?

Jonathan Clark is an expert contributor to Marketing Donut and the executive chairman of Bright Blue Day.

Read more about problem customers in our article on An Awkward Customer.

Need to know more about dealing with complaints? Read Five ways to solve customer problems and Golden rules of complaints handling.