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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

It's Not You, It's Us: The Best Way to End a Customer Relationship

Conventional wisdom suggests that if you’ve got an unhappy customer on your hands, you should do everything you can to fix the problem. But, research suggests, you might be better off sending them to the competition.

It's just like a bad breakup. People get emotional when they end a relationship with a brand. And, sometimes, just like in a breakup, that emotion turns into a desire for revenge, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

"Customers who were once enthusiastic about a brand may represent a headache for the associated firm beyond the lost revenue of foregone sales because they sometimes become committed to harming the firm," according to the study authors.

Online forums are overloaded with customer complaints from people who once loved or were loyal to particular brands but now strongly oppose them. "I used to love (name of store), let me tell you all why I plan to never go back there again; I hate them with a passion now," writes one unhappy former customer, for example.

According to the authors, some people identify so strongly with brands that they become relevant to their identity and self-concept. Thus, when people feel betrayed by brands, they experience shame and insecurity. "As in human relationships, this loss of identity can manifest itself in negative feelings, and subsequent actions may (by design) be unconstructive, malicious, and expressly aimed at hurting the former relationship partner," the authors said.

The study suggest that just like in a bad personal relationship, the best approach to ending the relationship may be a clean break, rather than a long goodbye.

"Rather than trying simply to win customers back, which may only exacerbate the situation, companies may want to explore responses that promote forgiveness, indifference, or effective disengagement," the authors said.

Sometimes a company may want to help embarrassed customers move on—even if it means directing them to a competitor.

"The sooner the customers are happily involved with a new brand, the faster one might expect damage to their self-concept to be repaired and the faster the motive to harm the offending firm might dissipate," the authors said.

The study was conducted by Allison Johnson (University of Western Ontario), Maggie Matear (Queens University, Kingston, Ontario), and Matthew Thomson (University of Western Ontario).