Mining the Gold: Listen Hard to “Detractors”


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Do you ever get on the telephone with customers who have either left your firm or show up as detractors in surveys? At one company I worked with, executives got on the line and got some amazing insights. When you’re working on a strategy for people who promote and recommend your company or product, don’t neglect the detractors. It’s important to look at the other end of the spectrum and really understand and feel the pain of those people and—even more importantly—discover why they’re not happy. If you listen hard to their feedback, you can mine the gold and improve your organization—and your relationship with your customers.

I find this breaks down into five key action items:

  • Action No. 1: Know your detractors by segment. Driving the “customer mission” as a strategic imperative of the business throws a bright glaring light on the profitability levels of customers who are your detractors and advocates. Do the hard work to not just understand your detractor score or metric but also to know that metric for the profitability segments of your business. Are your most profitable customers high scorers as promoters and low scorers as detractors? That’s your goal here. Do you see fluctuations in your detractors among your segments? As you see your scores over time, can you identify flare-ups in your detractor scores that are particular to segments of your business?

    If you can understand how the mix of customers who are detractors affects your profitability, this will be one more tool in your arsenal to drive the reprioritization of resources and focus within your company.

    Until the executives got on the phone, the problems never really hit the radar screen in a powerful way.

    One business-to-business company I have worked with had not segmented its customer base. It was collecting all feedback as an aggregate across all customers. Once the company segmented, it was able to see, for example, that during one fiscal quarter, the referral rating had dipped for its most profitable customer segment. Managers immediately did some digging and found out that the way the company had restructured billing and payment had caused the drop off.

    They worked to resolve the issues quickly, involving some of the detractors in the process. Within the next two months, the recommendation rate normalized and even rose a little because the company had actively involved customers and communicated to them what was going on. In this case, the company used the score as an early indicator to drive quick and decisive action. And it worked!

  • Action No. 2: Know the reasons why customers are your detractors. This requires additional conversation with detractors. Ensure that knowing the “why” is as important as the score. To get that information, you need to reach out to these customers and genuinely ask what went awry in the relationship. If you make this a reliable part of the process, this data-gathering will not seem as daunting as it sounds. Contact 100 detractors on a monthly basis. At about No. 25, you’ll find that the themes start to repeat. They usually do.

    Many of my clients are not embarking on monthly loss review calls with either those customers who left and or with their detractors. And yet, when companies do perform this task, executives become much closer to the problem. They garner an immediate understanding of what they need to focus on—after just a few calls. With one manufacturing firm, executives calling customers found out that there were some real issues in how the company was shipping out products.

    Rectifying them involved a simple fix. Yet, until the executives got on the phone, the problems never really hit the radar screen in a powerful way. In the past, they were buried in a survey score.

    These calls take the customer off spreadsheets and make them human. They prompt quick and often passionate action. Once you know why your customers become detractors, refer to Action No. 1 to ensure you know if there are differences in detractor issues by segment.
  • Action No. 3: Conduct a monthly loss review. Add an action that I call a “culture boost” to your monthly outreach to detractors. Identify customers who have left and also call a sampling of them to find out the reasons for their departure. You are likely to see that these issues coincide with those that the detractors give you. Again, know the reasons by segment. This should give you plenty of momentum to focus and attach resources to problems that are driving your customers and your profitability out the door.
  • Action No. 4: Get the voice of detractors in the ear of executives. Have your executives and others in your organization do a healthy portion of the outbound calls to detractors and customers who have left you. Reports are great. But there is nothing as powerful as hearing the voice of the customer personalizing and bringing the issues to life to drive traction.
  • Action No. 5: Establish accountability to remove the detractor Issues. Our corporate lives are filled with lists of priority-action items. These detractor items could easily land on one of those lists with great intention but with no real action or accountability applied to it. The key here is to create a simple accountability process. Identify the top five issues. Then create a standard process of accountability for how to dig into and diagnose the problem and resolve the issues. An example is this:

    • By Week 2: Map and diagnose the root causes.
    • By Week 3: Identify potential solutions.
    • By Week 4: Make proposals and amend the budget.
    • By Week 6: Take action.

When you make not just “managing” (translation: “trying to push down”) the number of detractors but also asking the “why” behind the number important, you will turn the tide of your approach. This is when it will start to become part of the DNA of your organization, something that prompts repeatable processes that have an impact on how people do their work and how your company conducts itself with customers.


  1. Dick Lee – Jeanne – you wrote one, excellent article. It’s a keeper. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, sometimes you can recommend an something until you’re blue in the face, but with no action taken. However, when you introduce a third-party article from a credible source the same people that weren’t hearing you get excited. I’m sure I’ll use this article more than once, because making the effort to understand customer churn is not an easy job.

  2. As proponents of a lead management and lead nurturing software system, we quickly discovered the same things Jeanne mentions–that quite frankly, customers don’t care about how WE think we should be running our business, but how THEY think we should be supporting them.

    It took a severe, ongoing problem of customer turnover for our business to come to that conclusion. Eventually, the CEO finally decided it was a big enough problem that he personally became involved, working closely with the account management team to improve relationships.

    –Steve Watts

  3. I agree with Jeanne on the importance of learning the negatives or complaints customers have about the business. Problem is, it is not, often the complaints one hears about as those can be, hopefully turned around. It is the ones one doesn’t hear about that can cause the most trouble. Those who complain, before letting it be known they have a complaint may only tell a few people. Those who don’t let their complaint be known, tell untold numbers of people . . . and the complaint takes on a life of its own that shows the customer is the best light and the resource in the worst way.

    The best way, from my experience in business, is to make it possible for those who interface with customers (past, current, future) to have a way to report those the negatives they hear about that will not put employees in a position of being chasized for brining up negatives.

    I call this format, “Business Calisthenics” which has five different categories of things to be aware of:

    * Questions heard for the first time or repeated questions not answered.

    * Question customers are looking for and can’t find.

    * Which and when any presentation via any medium or direct contact does not end up in a sale

    * What is the competition doing that we can/should do better than they.

    * Using employees’ business and personal experiences as a customer that are negative to see if the same thing is happening with us.

    (For a more detailed information, Business Calisthenics can be found in the business articles at

    However, it is not only asking them to be aware of this, it is their responsibility to make these negatives know to management and management’s obligation to receive these inputs as being positives to be better and getting better.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]

  4. Jeanne –

    Per your excellent article, we also believe it’s pivotal to understand the drivers behind both highly positive informal peer-to-peer communication and related (strong favorability, reduced consideration set, etc.) behaving customers, who we label as advocates, and their polar opposite – – detractors who, in some extreme cases, can become saboteurs. As you and others have pointed out, these highly negative customers first have to be identified, along with what makes up their DNA and potential prescriptives for changing this behavior. This will help leverage how specific messages and experience processes can be bootstrapped to reduce customer risk and, at the other end of the spectrum, optimize customer loyalty behavior.

    Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
    Vice President and Senior Consultant
    Harris Interactive Loyalty


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