Retention? Nope.

Ilium Software is really happy to have customers, but not so happy to have them that we would do anything to keep them. On the surface, doing anything seems like ‘bending over backwards’ to satisfy the customer. That’s not a horrible idea – we really try to make people happy within reasonable limits and company policy.

When I say ‘do anything’, I include threatening, badgering, obsfucating, hard-selling, and otherwise retaining.  The first – and quasi-official – thing that I want to get across is that we don’t have a retention policy or a manual. Ilium Software does not have a document that says how to retain customers when they say, “I don’t like [product], I want a refund.”

For more examples and some ranting, keep reading.

Example: The Consumerist [Warning: links in this paragraph may lead to articles containing profanity] is a blog that collects good and bad stories of customer service. A while back, they cracked a story about AOL’s customer retention policy with a stunning recording that a customer made while on the phone with a CSR (customer service representative) to cancel his account. The customer, Vincent, even appeared on national TV with his story. More recently, The Consumerist received a supposed copy of AOL’s retention manual and published it online.

Ilium Software has a ‘no questions asked’ return policy. This means that we don’t try to hassle you, give you tons of surveys to fill out, make you jump through flaming hoops, etc.

If you ask for a refund, you may actually be asked a question, but that’s usually if you indicate in the request that you had a specific problem with the software – an error message, failure, etc. When I get a request to refund a purchase that seems motivated by a problem that I know we have a solution for, I offer the solution first. If you don’t want eWallet because it won’t install onto your PDA, but I happen to know how to make it install since you are running into a common problem, I want you to be happy with what you purchased and get it working. If it isn’t going to work, or if you just don’t want to spend the time, that’s fine too. I don’t consider this ‘retention’, more like the original refund request is really a technical support issue and the refund portion is just out of frustration.

In other words, I’ll offer you help if I can, and if you don’t want it, I stop there – I’ll process your refund as soon as I have all the necessary information.

So, to conclude the mostly-official-Kevin-interpretation-of-company-policy statement, we don’t do what AOL and other companies apparently do. If you want a refund, we’re happy to refund you if we can.

If you want to read my personal opinion on this whole ‘retention’ issue, read on. Otherwise, stop. Put down your pencils and do not keep writing.

Warning: personal exclamations of incredulity that may or may not be shared by other people who work for Ilium Software ahead.  

I have one question for you, companies that have policies in place to sell a customer on something they don’t want: WHY? I almost feel like the startled, angry use of a profane word or two would be relevant. When I found the stories about AOL on The Consumerist, I was mad.

I try to help customers who have problems leading to a refund request because I want them to be happy with our software, and if the reason they aren’t happy is fixable without a refund, then why not offer it? The exchange is usually pretty short.

Customer: “[Program] won’t install, I get this error, I tried it ten times and it still gave me the error, I want a refund.”

Me: “It looks like you’re having this well-known problem. You can fix it by doing [sequence of steps to fix problem.] If that doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll be happy to refund your purchase.”

You: “Yay, it worked!” Or, sometimes, “I don’t care, refund me,” or, “It didn’t work, refund me.” In which case, I refund you.

I really hope this doesn’t make me into a hypocrite, saying that we don’t try to retain customers, while there I am trying to retain them. If I bought something at a store and angrily stormed up to the service desk demanding to return it because it didn’t do X, and the desk rep said, “oh, did you try this?” and educated me on how to make it work, I don’t think I’d still want to return it. I might feel a little dumb, but I wanted the product in the first place and I can assume I’d still want it if it worked right in the end. I assume this is why most consumer electronics now come with a large graphic on the inside box flap, reading, “STOP! Having problems? Don’t take this back to the store! Call this phone number instead!”

But a manual detailing the process to convince a user they’re wrong? People hired by a company specifically to sell you something you don’t want any more? People whose job future depends on how many people they successfully “win back”? People whose job is to make the customer defend their own reasoning repeatedly in order to ‘satisfy’ them? Give me a break.

Aren’t customers important? Wouldn’t trying to sell someone on something they truly didn’t want just alienate them? Doesn’t it effectively prey on their own confusion, lack of knowledge, or fear of confrontation to get them to do what the company wants? That’s ethically awful in my eyes. I will certainly never, ever refer someone to AOL since I’ve heard about this mess. I don’t feel afraid saying that publically – why would I want anyone I know to have to potentially deal with customer support reps who won’t let them go? Why would anyone want that?

It makes me wonder if whoever made this business decision ever ends up on the other side, like with spam (Do spammers hate spam too?) I try to imagine an executive putting in motion a system to retain customers, then having to discontinue his cell phone and having to say, “pretty please with sugar on top” to the CSR.

I have had one exactly one experience with a retention department. I cancelled my mobile phone service with T-Mobile to switch to Cingular for various reasons, mostly because I wanted a phone T-Mobile didn’t have. The exchange went something like this:

Them: “Is there a particular reason you wish to cancel service?”

Me: [Lists reasons]

Them: “Is there anything else we could do to make you wish to stay with T-Mobile?”

Me: “Well, not really. You actualy have really good service, I just want to do something that you don’t offer.”

Them: “Okay. Your account will be terminated, you’ll receive a final bill for X amount on date Y, blah blah blah.”

That’s about as far as I want to see ‘retention’ ever go.

Is the bottom line so important, the minimization of ‘churn’ so vital, that a company is willing to do whatever it takes?

I hope that someone who reads this has a different opinion than I do. I  want to see the other side to this, to see what it’s like to be in a position where the decision to forcefully retain customers is one that you or your company feels is necessary. I promise not to create some sort of argument if anyone posts a comment like that, and you can certainly post comments anonymously with our blog system.



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About Kevin

My dad brought a laptop home from work one day when I was in 5th grade, and it was all downhill from there. I've owned Palm PDAs, Pocket PCs, Handheld PCs, and Windows Mobile Smartphones, and finally found one that I could settle down with. Hopefully. I also graduated from the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor, with a B.S in Computer Science.

One thought on “Retention? Nope.

  1. Ellen

    In this excellent blog post, the author quotes a survey that claims that “63 per cent of the one in seven new phones which are returned have nothing wrong with them”. So yes, if I return a phone because it doesn’t come with any games, and the guy in the store shows me where the games are, I’m probably happy. On the other hand, if I’m returning the phone because I got a better price from another carrier and am too wimpy to say so after all the time the guy in the first store spent with me, all he’s going to do trying to help me is prolong my pain. Which I deserve for being a wimp.

    Anyway, I agree – if people don’t want something of ours, the last thing we want to do is force it on them, or even convince them to keep it against their will. We’re people too, and I like being able to live with myself.

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