How Do You Treat Your Bad Customers?

Originally posted on Tembua’s website.

Recently we received a notice of impending cancellation due to non-payment from our homeowner’s insurance agency. We have been their customers for 15 years and have never missed a payment. The reason they hadn’t received our check was simple: we never received the bill. They were the ones who didn’t get paid, and yet I was the one who was angry.

Why? Reasonably enough, I thought a 15-year relationship warranted a reminder phone call, a note, a postcard — something other than a cancellation notice. I resented being treated like a deadbeat, and the note I sent back with our check said so in no uncertain terms. If this is the way they treat a customer like me, what sort of notice do they send to a bad customer? Or can’t they tell the difference?

I was reminded of the professor who led my International Business German Exam preparation classes. She taught us that the slow payment, the late payment, and even the non-payment were opportunities to build our relationship with the client. As part of that class we composed reminder letters of varying tone, learning nuances used in the German business world.

The first overdue notice was not an overdue notice at all, but rather a special sales event announcement or an offer to a valued customer. The last sentence touched obliquely on the outstanding balance.

The next letter highlighted a service the customer used recently, and the single reminder sentence moved up to the lower third of the letter.

Perhaps half a dozen steps preceded an actual ”Hey, buddy, pay your bill” letter. Even then, our professor said the tone should be one of sorrow that such a good customer had somehow forgotten a payment. She called her method an easy way to keep existing customers and simultaneously build a reputation for customer care.

Her statistics on payments received using this method have slipped from my mind along with some of the more obscure German banking terms, but her theory impressed all of us.

I imagine we’re not the only company sometimes using her pattern of letters (usually in English). After all, a late payment can have many possible explanations. People forget, mail goes missing, invoices are misrouted. Sometimes the customer doesn’t know payment hasn’t been made. More often than not our first-level note brings not only a check but also a request for another quote.

The cancellation notice we received reaffirmed my commitment to treat our customers the way we’d like to be treated. Not only is that the morally correct path, it makes the most business sense. I don’t think our insurance company is aware of how close they came to losing a customer.

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About tembua

Tembua: The Precision Language Solution provides comprehensive linguistic services for 100 languages to private industry and government agencies on a global scale. Services include document and website translation and localization; conference and 24/7 telephonic interpretation; glossary development; proofreading, text adaptation, editing, multilingual design and DTP; transcription; technical / custom authoring editing, foreign search engine optimization; translation memory management; subtitling.
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