The ties that bind

Aug 21 2007 by Andy Hanselman Print This Article

Have you ever had problems unsubscribing from an email newsletter or mailing list? I've just spent three days trying to put a stop to a regular newsletter that had become a bit too regular for my liking. The hassle and inconvenience I went through shows a complete lack of respect to me as a customer (or ex-customer as I now see myself).

It's generally accepted that customer-focused businesses are easy to buy from and easy to do business with. But I also think they ought to be easy to walk away from. The challenge, of course is to make sure you don't want to walk away – to turn you into a devoted customer.

If you do want to opt out or say no, the best businesses let you do it painlessly - something that many organisations are struggling to learn.

In this age of abundance, customers have more choice, and are generally becoming more promiscuous and switching suppliers more frequently. This means higher rates of defection and customer churn. As a result, organisations need to change their working practices if they're going to stay competitive.

On his album "The River", Bruce Springsteen opens with a song called "The Ties That Bind". That's what I believe businesses should strive to do: create the ties that bind their customers to them. But critically, there are two ways of doing this: positively and negatively.

Positive ties involve providing an exceptional experience and consistently delivering something that means customers don't want to go elsewhere. It means getting them to buy into your brand, values and ethos so that they want to keep doing business with you.

Negative ties involve keeping them by making it almost impossible to leave. These are the ties that involve time, hassle and difficulty in breaking free or opting out, that punish customers for wanting to walk away.

Yet keeping customers locked in against their will is no good for anybody. It might make for short-term financial gain, but in the longer term it just breeds frustration, anger and resentment.

I remember some years ago switching from the mobile phone group Orange because their network didn't work where our new house was. I got a lovely letter headed 'we're sorry to see you go....' and moving on was painless. The overall experience had a really positive effect on me and I left with an extremely positive feeling towards them.

OK, they'd lost a customer (beyond their control), but not one who would spread bad news about them. In fact given the opportunity, I would very likely do business with them again should circumstances allow it.

Unfortunately, more commonplace is a time-consuming, overly-bureaucratic processes combined with unhelpful and unfriendly staff that adds up to a long-lasting sour taste in the mouth.

Even when customers have managed to break free, some organisations continue to bombard them with ongoing intrusive correspondence. Don't get me wrong, many customers ask to be kept in touch, and stay engaged. But there still seems to be too many organisations who believe if they continue to keep shouting at us loudly enough and as often as possible they will win back our loyalty.

The result is over frequent, inappropriate contact, very little dialogue and too much talking at. The worst are those that just keep talking even though you've told them you don't want to listen anymore. They somehow can't accept you've made another choice.

Just because they send you stuff doesn't mean you'll read it. Maybe you think it's irrelevant. That means you just ignore it. The result? Those messages become invisible.

Even worse than becoming invisible, is becoming intrusive. That's when you regard their stuff as junk or spam and you want out. Making it difficult to do this with even more negative ties that bind means we get even more irritated and annoyed.

So, what does all this mean for you and your organisation?

First, eliminate any negative ties that bind.

1. Make it easy for your customers to opt out. If a customer does decide to leave you, accept it with grace, thank them for their business, find out why they're moving on, and ask if it's ok to (and how best to) stay in touch. Give them a positive experience to remember you by. 'No' doesn't always mean 'no forever'.

2. Make it easy for your existing customers to opt out of the things they don't want. That could mean from just some of the things you offer. Maybe they don't want your weekly email updates, but would like a quarterly summary or courtesy call.

3. If customers (past or present) do want you to remain in touch, interact and communicate with them in a way that suits them, not you. Demonstrating to individuals that you recognise the value of their time and privacy can create a positive effect far stronger than trying to force them to listen to messages they're not interested in.

It might seem strange to consider making your ongoing contact list smaller, but size isn't everything! Much better to have a smaller group of individuals who are actually interested in what you have to say, are advocates and actually 'engage' with you, than having a huge mailing list of people who aren't reading your emails or newsletters ( or even worse, are bored, irritated or annoyed by them).

Better still, of course, is to build positive ties that bind.

1. Make it difficult for your customers to opt out by providing them with stuff they WANT! Create positive 'experiences' with every customer contact.

2. Find ways of engaging with your customers – get their opinions, views and ideas.

3. Make your correspondence stimulating, fun, value adding, and relevant. What do you need to do to make people look forward to contacting (or being contacted by) you?

4. Personalise as much as possible – give customers options to suit their needs, tailor your offering, and demonstrate you care.


It might seem obvious, tying customers into your business has huge benefits, but only if it's their choice. Do all you can to make this happen, but for those who Bruce would say are 'Born To Run', sometimes, you've just got to make it easy for them to go.

They'll thank you and respect you for it. In the long run, that can only do you good.

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About The Author

Andy Hanselman
Andy Hanselman

Andy Hanselman helps businesses and their people think in 3D. That means being Dramatically and Demonstrably Different. An expert on business competitiveness, he has spent well over 20 years researching, working with, and learning from, successful fast growth businesses. His latest book, The 7 Characteristics of 3D Businesses, reveals how businesses can get ahead, and stay ahead of their competitors.