Does any of this sound familiar:

• We lost him after 10 years. At the time, I could only describe myself as stunned. I didn’t see it coming. In hindsight, I guess I should have, but I didn’t. He’s now with a new wash down the road that is no better than we are at washing cars. They lured him away by making him feel important. We blew it. Simple as that.
• We offer great deals to new customers. We have introductory prices, pilot prices, and other discounts we can use. Where things get sticky is retention. Unless a customer leaves, we don’t have a lot of flexibility. We chase them and then beg them to stay when they threaten to leave.

People responsible for providing customer service know great customers are not a dime a dozen. Yet, every single day, businesses lose people they’d like to keep. What’s going on? While the root cause could be anything, usually, these defections stem from a few key mistakes.


A business assumes longevity equals “happy in the relationship.” The truth is more complicated, however. There are a lot of “blah” service marriages out there. Justthe customer is the most important person in the relationship.because someone has stuck around for a long time does not mean he or she is committed to the service or the service provider. If another wash says it can do better, a breakup may be imminent.

Mitigation Move

There is a reason people celebrate anniversaries. Do you have an annual check-in communication with your customers? If not, consider piloting this process with a select group. The purpose isn’t to sell. Rather, it’s to say thank you, ask questions, and, more importantly, to listen. Smart businesses find creative ways to make check-in meetings work: an energy company offers an annual energy audit to homeowners at no cost; a bank branch schedules time to go over a customer’s accounts, listen to his financial goals, and review new products; or a car wash proactively performs an annual spring-cleaning assessment and estimate. No matter what business you’re in, you can probably find a meaningful way to connect. For example, are you in the pizza-selling business? Great. How about a thank-you card at the end of the year: John, 32 pies in 52 weeks! We thank you and look forward to serving you in the coming year. Enclosed, please find a dough-for-dough gift card. It’s our way of saying thanks for choosing us as your pizza partner.


A business doesn’t think like its customers or have their best interest at heart. Anyone who has ever left a business and then received e-mail invitations to come back at a better rate understands this error. If you could have given me a wash subscription at $29.99 a month, why didn’t you say so when I was paying $34.99? Get away and goodbye.

Mitigation Move

Give your existing customers your best service, best advice, and best deals. Doing so may hurt your wallet in the short term, but in the long run, it’s the right thing to do and a strategy that will build trust and loyalty.


A business hires people who focus on themselves. For example, your regular service writer/greeter tells you too much about her life and her problems. At first, you were glad she made conversation. Now you dread hearing about the train wreck that is her situation — especially when you don’t ask. Lately, you’d like to talk about you or just wash in peace.

Mitigation Move

Live by a customer-first philosophy. The customer is the most important person in the relationship, not you. No matter how friendly customers are, avoid mistaking conviviality for someone’s desire to focus on you. To put it in math terms, try to do no more than 30 percent of the talking. Instead, spend your time asking good questions and listening to the answers.


A business follows a feast-or-famine contact model. For instance, a real estate agent who sold a customer a house five years ago gets in touch for the first time in a long time now that he’s learned the customer might be moving. He calls, he texts, he e-mails, and it’s too late. The customer has signed on with an agent she met at her book club.

Mitigation Move

Create a contact schedule that makes sense for the kind of business you’re in. Also, look at many other industries as you create your plan. For example, your hairdresser may have a technique or two you can borrow to use in your car wash business. You don’t want to be a pest, and, at the same time, you don’t want to be passed over the next time someone needs the types of products and services you provide.

With a little effort, you can avoid new mistakes. And over time, you can mitigate any bad choices you’ve made previously. Great customers are great customers, and they’re going to be somebody’s customer. Why not make decisions that will make you their provider of choice?

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. For more information, visit