How to win back old customers

Keeping sales flowing is a major challenge. Rather than constantly chasing new customers, it can be more economical to revisit old leads. Kate Horstead finds out how to get dormant customers to buy from you again

"Current customers are your gold dust, but if you've let customers go, it's cheaper and easier to look at that old base before you start with brand new people - especially if you once had a good relationship with them," says Paul Cooper, director of the Institute of Customer Service.

Attracting back customers

Your old customers can be a valuable source of sales. They already know your business and were once interested in buying from you, so you may be able to persuade them to buy from you again. With new sales leads you have the time and expense of finding customers from scratch.

As long as you've kept good records of customers, you will know their buying habits. If you don't already have a system that stores this information, you need to set one up.

"If you have a system that tells you that a customer hasn't bought from you for four months or longer, you should follow that up straight away," advises Cooper.

If you're worried about data protection regulations preventing you from accessing old customer details, don't be put off. As long as you have a genuine reason to contact an old customer and haven't held their details for an unreasonable length of time, there won't be a problem.

Find out why customers stopped buying

It is crucial to find out why the customer left you but you also need to establish a connection with them before trying to sell to them again. Was it something you said? Something you did? Perhaps it was them and not you. Still, they may have gone, but that doesn't mean your relationship has to be over for ever. There's always a chance you can get them back.

"Just contact them to ask how things are going," suggests Cooper. "The key thing is to get an answer to the question: 'Why aren't you dealing with us?'".

Issues around your customer service can arise leaving your customers unhappy. It's naive to think everything will run smoothly all the time, even with the best intentions and the best staff training. Let's face it, everyone, including you, can have an off day.

On average, most companies will lose between 10 and 40% of their customers. These are people who have walked away and may never return, and many companies don't even bother to find out why. The problem is, when you lose customers, you have to go out and find new ones to replace them - and that's costly and time-consuming.

If you're still not quite convinced that it's worth the hassle of contacting people who won't necessarily make it easy for you, then consider this: the cost of winning back an old customer is far, far less than acquiring a new one. Economically it just makes sense.

Customer service

You may discover that customers are dissatisfied with the customer service they received from you before or have found a better deal elsewhere. You might be able to show them you have revised your customer service policy or are now offering enticing discounts. Discounts, vouchers and loyalty cards are all great ways to get people back on side and will give you a second chance to secure their business and prove your worth.

Asking people what they want and giving your personal assurance that you can make it happen may seem obvious, but you can't afford to underestimate its impact. Remember that in their absence these customers may well have become loyal to another company. You'll need to give them a tangible incentive to come back to you.

"It's essential not to kick current customers in the teeth by offering a better deal to old customers," warns Cooper. "But it's worth contacting former customers and offering to extend an existing offer to them."

Sometimes customers drift away because they have no regular contact with your business, so you need to make them feel valued. Sending out friendly emails or a newsletter to old customers could lead to renewed custom.

If you have no luck the first time, contact them every few months. Your competitor may disappoint them, or they may revise their budget or strategy. "Customers' needs change," says Cooper. "There is no reason to write them off forever."

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