Unanswered calls and poor follow-through do nothing to reduce customer churn.
The Broken Window Theory
In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell references a theory that became a policing strategy that is thought to be central to the improvements in crime rates in New York in the 1990s. The broken windows theory suggests that higher crimes such as assaults and robberies are the byproduct of the environment in which they occur. As the namesake example goes, if a window is vandalized and goes unfixed, it creates an atmosphere that suggests that this small crime occurred, went unpunished, and consequently some crime is essentially expected and acceptable. When some small crimes are acceptable, it encourages crimes like defacing a house or spray painting a building and the severity of crime continues to escalate as each subsequent type of crime goes unpunished and unfixed.
The broken windows in our accounts
Conventional wisdom for those of us selling software and services to businesses has been to focus on the big events like renewals and QBRs. Broken windows account management suggests that managing customers primarily at these critical relational milestones is a flawed strategy. If we wish to make improvement in reducing the most serious and least desirable outcomes (i.e. license reduction, usage decrease or churn) in our accounts, we have to start with a consistent, repeatable processes that inhibits “broken windows” from ever happening.
From the Sales high to reality… windows sometimes break
In our B2B relationships, we start with a happy, safe relationship. We anticipate a thriving, successful relationship, and feel confident that our solution will provide real value. But those relationships rarely exist perpetually without blemish or setback. Those small and sometimes unspoken problems are our broken windows. A broken window, in and of itself, is not a problem. The real problem is when the window goes unrepaired.
When small issues arise in our customer relationship, such as unanswered phone calls or poor follow-through, we send little messages to our customers that the promise of our brand, product and services maybe not be what we professed. Even a subtle loss of trust in what we offer and what we claim we do often come with reactions and behavioral changes in our customers that make the relationship even less stable and predictable. It is our ability to prevent those occasions and respond to setbacks that dictate the future path of our relationship.
How do we make sure the windows don’t crack to begin with?
Stopping the more serious issues starts with the most basic level of our relationship with our customer, the activities we do together – the emails, the phone calls, the meetings, the business reviews, etc. It is being intentional and methodical about how we interact with our customers. We likely know how to handle the squeaky wheel. We apply a bit of oil and, with a small effort and little cost, we return things to optimal.
Fixing broken windows is fine, but stopping them from breaking to begin with is better. This involves being intentionally proactive. Here are some thoughts to consider as you try to avoid the broken windows:
- Identify where windows tend to break. Likely they are in the same place as everyone else’s. In the onboarding/implementation and adoption phase of our lifecycles, the details matter greatly and everything we do or, more commonly, don’t do solidifies the atmosphere in which our partnership will exist.
- Remember that the details matter. Every small thing that you do (or don’t do) with your customer impacts the partnership. Simply answering your phone, being reliable, and following through as you promise go a long way in establishing a partnership.
- Don’t just check in. Adopting a strategy of going live and then checking in at quarterly intervals or right before the renewal invoice goes out is a gamble that you can win them back if they stray. This is a gamble that is too risky. Watch for warning signs between calls, and make sure you have a clear agenda for all of your calls.
- Set expectations for an agile cadence which includes regular reviews. Being agile in Customer Success doesn’t mean you pivot at every meeting. Rather, it means you have a regular cadence for meeting (scrumming) to prioritize your customer’s needs and are able to make appropriate recommendations to them to address their evolving goals.
- Celebrate victories with your customer. Affirm what works – and what doesn’t. And make changes accordingly.
The broken window theory is a metaphor for the domino effect of disorder in neighborhoods. The theory suggests that remediating the small problems actually empowers and strengthens the neighbors to take back their community and gain more pride, which, in turn, prevents crime. This same cycle can be applied to account management. While it’s ideal to avoid any broken windows, it will sometimes happen. Just don’t let the window go unrepaired. Keeping loyal customers involves lots of things, including being able to take responsibility for and fix mistakes quickly and move forward.
Adam Young, Director of Customer Success at Bolstra (by day); creative customer preservationist (24/7)