How to win customers back – the 4 difficult steps

How long does it take to bring back a customer that has had a series of bad experiences? And what do you need to do to get them back?

In Simon Grigg‘s case – about 8 years, and a heck of a lot. Let’s look at the lessons learned, and I’m also going to draw on my own experiences with three lousy (to me) companies – Telecom, McDonalds and Microsoft.

Simon’s experiences with Air New Zealand started going south in 1999, and he last flew with them in early 2002. Since then it seems he has actively worked to avoid Air New Zealand, flying on a number of other international airlines, and experiencing a range of horrific experiences. His blog post has more, but in a comment to the post here on Air NZ winning the Airline of the Year award he said of his last trip in 2002:

“To be honest the last time I flew them (from NZ to Melbourne), I swore I’d not ever fly them again. The plane was over-crowded, dirty, the inflight entertainment system was almost non-existent and the service utterly shocking”

Meanwhile after years of giving in I finally snapped and said “enough” of McDonalds “food.” The epiphany was when, after weeks of eating street food in Mexico, I and a friend saw our first McDonalds for a while and stopped to eat. We both felt ill almost immediately afterward – and this indeed was the worst food experience in Mexico. Meanwhile in Bolivia everyone seemed slim and fit – except for those people I saw in the McDonalds store in La Paz. It all makes me feel sick, and have not been back for years.

If you mess up with customers they will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid your products, even to the extent of making things much worse for themselves.

After Air New Zealand were bailed out from the Ansett debacle they embarked on a remarkable turnaround – one that now sees them at the top. It took a lot – several restructures, a great management team, plenty of hard work and time.

Meanwhile Telecom recently begun their own climb out of their own deep hole with the launch of the XT network. It’s a far superior product not only versus their old one, but also, for those with iPhones, to all of their competitors. I’ve switched, but I’ve run out of fingers and toes trying to count the number of iPhone owners that have stayed with Vodafone, mostly because of a passionate anti-Telecom feeling after years of being abused.

Step 1: Improve the business, the products, the service: Improving the service levels is the first and critical step – that means a complete transformation of the business, and it starts at the top. This takes years, but even then it is not sufficient to bring back everyone.

So although Simon had seen the press, read the blog posts and tweets, he still actively avoided flying with our flag carrier. I would also posit that he actively avoided the Ar New Zealand marketing itself – he had made his mind up. Eventually it took a big price difference between a Thai and an Air New Zealand flight from Asia for him to give Air New Zealand another go. Even then it was with some trepidation.

Telecom were for years the masters of advertising something that bore no relationship to their actual products and services. We all, eventually, could see through that, and simply learned not to trust them. For me it took a hopeless experience with Vodafone’s network when motorcycling around the South Island to try XT. It’s the same with the people I’ve been evangelizing XT to – yes, even word of mouth doesn’t work. It usually takes a trip away from the main centers for them to wake up, but by then they are often locked into a contract.

I’ve not only trained myself not to walk into McDonalds stores – the smell makes me feel ill now – but also to react the same way to any marketing by them. I don’t care if they say their food is healthy – I “know” is is not. I’d only go into a store if there were absolutely no alternative.

Step 2: Use a wide range of marketing and pricing tools to spread the message that things are better. However while many will return, for others it will come down to luck or desperation.

Once Simon got on board his flight things got interesting. I’ll let Simon explain (more goodness there), with apologies for grabbing the long excerpt:

We sat in our seats (63D & E if anyone cares) and asked the steward if they had eyepads as sleep was a necessity and usually highly unlikely on a full, as it was, 777. Of course, he said and returned with not only the afore requested pads but earplugs (these are both supplied as standard kit to every passenger on many airlines so no extra points for that aside from the big smile that went with it), but also with business class headsets (extra points earned) and the offer of a glass each of French champagne from the front of the plane (extra points being ladled on now). Yes.

He returned and said “here you go, Mr. Grigg”. Bemused, the woman in 63F asked if we’d just got married or something. We returned the bemusement.

After we took off another member of the cabin staff came past and stopped to ask us …just us … if all was fine. Uh, yes. Fine.

Would we like some more wine? Uh, yes? (no-one else was asked).

A few minutes later a woman called Ruth came to us (and I paraphrase, so I’m sorry Ruth memory is not that good). I’m the crew manager. Is all ok? Yes. I bet you’re wondering why all the attention. Yes. Its because of a comment on a blog and a tweet. Uhh. We were contacted by three different people in the organisation and told you were about to fly with the airline and to look after you. Uhhh. We just want to say thank you for giving us another go and welcome back.


Nice indeed. Chalk that one up to, I suspect, to the outstanding Concierge program who have a mission to “making every customer journey before, during and after an Air New Zealand service a special event.” Well done also also to the other folks inside AirNZ that passed on the message, and of course to the crew on that day. While it may have helped that Simon Grigg is a big flyer, I suspect that this is how Air New Zealand would like to operate its Concierge service and its flights. The results were good:

“it was a very pleasant flight. Without reservation.

No, make that a really bloody good flight. It worked. I’m happily sold and, all things as they should be, will probably make the BKK-HK-NZ route the default route when re-nesting, using Air New Zealand. Is that humble pie enough”

It’s the same whether you are landing new customers or bringing back old ones – it’s just that bringing back old ones is often harder, but perhaps more lucrative if you know who they are.

For websites this is often much easier – you know when old customers have returned and can offer them deals and incentives to get back on board. For airlines – well they can use everything from using historic records of lapsed frequent flyers to social media monitoring to being smart and attentive at check-in.

Step 3: Identify Returning Customers and fight to win them back: Before you can win back old customers, you need to know that they are coming back, so use whatever you can to identify them. Once they return to try your service or product then overwhelm them with great product, service and do it with integrity.

What sticks out to me in Simon’s story is how hard it was for him to admit that Air New Zealand had changed. He needed to basically say that he was wrong, and that others, including and airline he didn’t like, were right.

I felt the same way when I signed up to Telecom’s XT (month to month), and on the seldom occasions that I try out Bing. I suspect we all feel this way – a little dirty – like we am compromising my values.  We feel like we are losing face, we feel cognitive dissonance.

That dissonance is only dissipated after an unbroken series of positive customer experiences. For me air New Zealand just keeps delivering the positive stories, while poor Telecom seemed to have under-specified their XT network, and we have had two major outages within a few months of launch.

Step 4: Help former customers feel good about returning returning – admit your mistakes and give them plenty of reasons to like you again. Monitor their use of your products and services and make sure that they are having good experiences. Aim to make every experience a positive one, and react quickly when it doesn’t work out.

In the end it comes back to Step 1 – the first step to get customers to return is stop selling lousy products and start selling good ones. This means listening (not preaching to) the customers and taking the painful feedback. Then is the difficult work of  turning around the company, and producing a series of great products and services.

That all starts, as I have said before, with the board.

Published by Lance Wiggs


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