Managing customer retention is an incredibly important part of growing a sustainable business. According to research from Harvard Business School, increasing customer retention rates by only 5% increases a company’s profits by 25-95%.

Poor customer retention is similar to filling a bucket with holes in the bottom: sure, you could keep piling on to make up for it, but you’re much better off figuring out what caused the holes and how you can patch them up.

Retaining customers costs less than acquiring them, and both add to your company’s bottom line. So before you go all-in on tactics designed to get new prospects into your sales pipeline, consider using one of these nine research-backed customer retention strategies to grow your revenue by keeping the customers you already have.

  1. Stand for something
  2. Capture your product’s momentum
  3. Don’t just sell — educate
  4. Deliver surprise reciprocity
  5. Find ways to delight your customers consistently
  6. But focus on service before delight
  7. Accept that speed is secondary to quality
  8. Build your customer loyalty programs the right way
  9. Reward your loyal advocates

1. Stand for something

Very few customers feel they have relationships with the brands they purchase from and use. In fact, a study by the Corporate Executive Board that included 7,000 consumers from across the U.S. found that only 23% of consumers have a relationship with a brand.

Interestingly, 64% of the consumers who said they have a relationship with a brand cited shared values as the primary reason for that relationship.

Most people prefer products and companies that resemble them in some way. This cognitive bias is called implicit egotism and is an important thing to keep in mind.

Customers are more likely to ignore you if your company doesn’t stand for anything. If you want loyal customers, you need to create real connections with them by letting them know what values you share.

For example, in 2019, we completed the process of becoming a certified B Corp. The certification both keeps us aligned to our values as a company and shows our customers that our purpose is not only profit but also a positive impact for employees, communities, and the environment.

As Nick Francis writes:

“There’s no such thing as being ‘above politics’ or not taking sides as a brand. It would be great if companies didn’t have political agendas, but they inevitably do. And if companies are inevitably political, then we want to be deliberate about the things we stand for.”

What does your company stand for? If you define your values and highlight them as part of your brand, it will be easier to retain the customers who share those values.

2. Capture your product’s momentum

When exciting improvements are being made to your product, everyone in the company feels the momentum. But do your customers feel the same way?

They won’t unless you take the time to share your work.

Create excitement with current customers by showing them what your latest features will help them accomplish.

For example, as we prepared to introduce major improvements to our Beacon product in 2018 (such as the addition of live chat), we ran a series of preview posts (like this and this) to generate excitement about everything customers would be able to accomplish with the new tools.

Not only does this build momentum for upcoming releases, but it also helps promote new features that existing customers might otherwise miss. And according to research from CX Solutions (formerly TARP Worldwide), telling customers about new products or services they can really use creates an average 30% lift to repurchase or recommend.

3. Don’t just sell — educate

The same CX Solutions study mentioned above also found that “proactively providing information on how to avoid problems or get more out of your product” creates a 32% average lift to repurchase or recommend.

The last thing you want to do is leave customers to fend for themselves after they’ve signed up. It’s crucial to offer resources that make it easy for new customers to learn how to use your product.

There are a lot of different ways to train new customers on how to use your product:

At Help Scout, we offer recurring 45-minute live classes that new customers can register for in order to learn more about our product and ask any questions they have.

4. Deliver surprise reciprocity

Reciprocity is the social construct that makes the world go ‘round and keeps customers coming back.

The concept of reciprocity is simple: people respond based on how they’re treated. When someone is treated nicely, they respond nicely. When they’re treated poorly, they respond poorly.

It’s no wonder then that consistently good service is one of the biggest drivers of repurchases and recommendations.

impact on repurchase or recommendations

Source: CX Solutions

And while reciprocity works incredibly well on its own, research shows it’s far more powerful when it’s a surprise. Recall a time that someone did something nice for you unexpectedly. The gesture probably wasn’t all that unusual, but the fact that it came out of nowhere likely left a strong impression on you.

Brainstorm some ways you can surprise your customers with a kind gesture. For example, at Help Scout, we occasionally send handwritten notes and swag to our customers just to say thank you.

Thank-you notes are a rare throwback to old-fashioned, personal customer service; they stand out as a delightful gesture that makes customers feel special and cared for. The relationship-building is well worth the relatively minimal investment.

5. Find ways to delight your customers consistently

Discounts and freebies are a great way to delight your customers, but they can be costly. Instead of leaning too heavily on these delighters, you should embrace the art of the frugal wow — creating reciprocity through small, thoughtful gestures.

In fact, psychologist Norbert Schwarz found that as little as 10 cents can create reciprocity between two individuals. It really is the thought that counts.

One small way we try to consistently brighten our customers’ days is by building what we call “huzzah” images into our product — a fun illustration and caption that appears when customers reach inbox zero.

It may seem like a small thing, but if you can make people feel good about using your product, they’ll be more likely to stick around.

Another example: in a study from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers found that waiters and waitresses could increase their tips by 23 percent through the simple act of returning to tables with a second set of mints.

6. But focus on service before delight

Many companies assume exceptional customer service can only be achieved by going above-and-beyond — that loyalty is built on showy gestures.

But according to research from Dixon, Toman, and DeLisi published in The Effortless Experience, the true driver of customer retention and loyalty is the ease of getting a problem solved.

Delight isn’t the foundation of a customer service strategy; it’s a second-order effect. First, focus on consistently meeting expectations and avoiding unpleasant surprises. Then go the extra mile. Here are a few more tips.

Provide support on the right channel(s)

It’s important to make sure you’re providing support on the channels that make the most sense for your business and your customers. Hosting companies, for example, know that live chat is critical when their customers’ sites go down; other companies may have customers who prefer using self-service, or even phone support.

Make customer support a communal effort

Countless case studies have made one thing clear when it comes to creating an efficient support system: you need to keep everybody in the loop.

At Help Scout, we use our integration with Slack to access real-time notifications of what’s happening on the customer end. We were able to improve our response time by 340% (not a typo!) by creating a support channel for all of our teammates.

7. Accept that speed is secondary to quality

When it comes to highly rated customer service, quality and completeness matter more than speed.

According to research from Gallup, customers were nine times more likely to be engaged with a brand when they evaluated the service as “courteous, willing, and helpful.” “Speedy” service, on the other hand, only made customers six times more likely to be satisfied.

Telling your team to spend more time with customers might seem counterintuitive, but numerous behavioral psychology studies have shown that everyone views their service experience as more positive when they don’t feel rushed or ignored.

Whether you’re responding to support requests or delivering new features, speed is only delightful if you’re delivering exactly what your customers need. You’ll do more damage than good by rushing and delivering something that creates more problems than it solves.

In fact, research conducted by John Goodman found that customers were much more sensitive to price changes — and thus more likely to churn — when they experienced a few problems with the product or the support they received.

problems increase sensitivity to price

Source: Strategic Customer Service

8. Build your customer loyalty programs the right way

The key to creating loyalty programs that work is to know why customers use them and what gets customers to keep using them. Luckily, there’s a ton of research on customer loyalty programs that you can use to set your program up correctly from the start.

Give loyal customers a head start

Consumer researchers Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dreze are known for their studies on the Endowed Progress Effect. Their results have conclusively shown that the biggest pitfall in preventing customer loyalty programs from succeeding is getting people started.

In their well-known car wash study, participants were twice as likely to finish loyalty cards when they were automatically started (or rewarded) as soon as they signed up.

Make ideal customers VIPs

Additional research by Dr. Nunes on retention programs has shown that people love being VIP or “gold” members. There is one caveat, though — this only works when people know there is a class below them on the totem pole. Speaking to human nature, Nunes saw a notable increase in gold members’ participation as soon as he implemented a silver class.

Assign your customers positive labels

Research on voting patterns conducted by Stanford University revealed people are more likely to participate in something if they are labeled with a positive trait.

Buffer refers to their premium customers as “awesome” members and even named their upgraded payment plan the “Awesome Plan.”

9. Reward your loyal advocates

When your customers go out of their way to recommend your product or service to others, let them know that you see and appreciate it! If you spot someone recommending your business on social media, for example, reply to say thanks. It shows you’re paying attention and that their testimony means something to you.

Another way to recognize your brand advocates is with a referral program. For example, we give our customers a $100 Amazon gift card when they refer someone who becomes a customer (and that new customer gets a $50 credit on their account).

Help Scout referral program

Retaining customers is a balancing act

There are many customer retention strategies, but there are no shortcuts. You can’t hack a personal relationship, so why should we assume business relationships are any different?

The bottom line is that the strategies above should hopefully give you some fresh ideas for approaching retention, but they’re not a cure-all. Your product and service will do most of the heavy lifting in keeping customers loyal, and there are no shortcuts for that.

Eli Overbey

Eli Overbey

Eli is the Head of Growth at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.