5 Practices for Truly Effective Customer Follow-up


Those who have engendered loyalty effectively follow up with their customers. It goes with doing the “job to be done.”

Our service might have been just fine, but that doesn’t mean it stayed fine. And we can always improve. We should be asking the question, “What can we do better?” Unless we’re constantly upgrading what we do, the loyalty of our customers may be at risk. Follow-up is not hard if we really mean to be helpful.

What Does “Follow Up to Strengthen the Relationship” Look Like?

Follow-up is more than just a courtesy. It’s an opportunity to build the relationship, and that may be the best reason of all for doing consistent follow-up. If we see a customer interaction as a “one-off” event, that customer isn’t likely to feel connected to us.

Many organizations now have whole systems for following up with customers. There are online surveys and paper surveys, text messages, robo-calls, and calls from real humans, all asking us to rate their service. To customers it feels like “relentless tugs on the sleeve.”

Does this mean you shouldn’t follow up with customers? Not at all. Follow-up doesn’t require an elaborate survey system. And even if your company does it that way, you should still follow up on your own—for the good of your team and your personal relationship with the customer.

Informal, face-to-face follow-up is far more effective than, say, email surveys. In fact, research shows that personal requests for information are 34 times more likely than an email survey to get a useful response.

We can get the equivalent of dozens of “completed surveys” each day simply by asking customers a question or two.

Beyond this informal kind of follow-up, some surveys can be quite useful. Ideally, the survey identifies unhappy customers to follow up with so we can understand concerns, fix problems, and prevent issues from happening again. We should also follow up with those who are lukewarm about their experience with us, as well as our happiest and strongest promoter customers. Every customer can teach us how to get better.

Counterfeit Follow-Up

The opposite of following up is giving up, dropping the ball, walking away, or thinking “out of sight, out of mind.” Counterfeit follow-up is equally irresponsible, and it involves:

  • Showing interest only to protect ourselves.
  • Asking questions without caring about the response.

When checking out of a store, we sometimes hear “Find everything you need?” from an employee whose head is down, isn’t making eye contact, and quite frankly doesn’t seem to care if we found everything or not. Customers can quickly spot rote and robotic routines like these. If loyalty is important to us, we can do better, even if it’s only a friendly farewell. No follow-up is better than phony, counterfeit follow-up.

Why Aren’t We Following Up to Strengthen the Relationship?

It takes time. “How,” you might ask, “do I do genuine, personal follow-up and still take care of all the other demands on my time?” Effective follow-up does take time, but in our opinion, it often takes a lot less time (and expense) to find out about a problem now, and fix it, rather than to wait, learn about it later, and have to sort it out then.

Dealing with conflict is challenging. Most customer-service training focuses on “recovery” from mishaps or “defusing” conflicts. Your team shouldn’t be having to defuse customer anger—at least not very often – if they are practicing the principles and practices of loyalty.

How Do We Follow Up to Strengthen the Relationship?

In a conflict situation, customers want more than just a “defusing” of their feelings. They want the job done. That’s where conscientious follow-up comes in.

The 5 “A’s”

There are 5 “A’s” to remember when doing follow-up, especially in a conflict situation.

  • Assume that others have good intent.
  • Align with the person’s emotions.
  • Apologize with our heart and without a hint of defensiveness.
  • Ask how we can make things right.
  • Assure the person we will follow through, and then do it.

Assume That Others Have Good Intent

If we assume unhappy customers are trying to take advantage to get “freebies,” we will come across with an attitude that puts customers immediately on the defensive. Instead, we need to give our customers the benefit of the doubt, even if temporarily. In showing empathy, we’ll hear them out and do our best to understand their point of view. Are there customers who will try to take advantage of us? Yes, but they are outliers. Most are not like that.

We’re not in favor of giving away the store, but a prompt offer of compensation for a foul-up is not only a good way to earn loyalty, but also a decent thing to do. Extending trust to people usually pays off in the long run.

Align With the Person’s Emotions

By this we mean align your response to the customer’s emotions. We do not mean you should get angry if the customer is angry. “Alignment” means getting on the customer’s side, even if temporarily.

Unhappy customers need to get “psychological air.” Strong emotions are like suffocation: they’ve got to be able to breathe before they can think about anything else. If they’re upset, let them vent. Let them get it all out. We use your empathy skills of making a warm connection and listening to learn. We stand with them, not against them.

Apologize With Our Heart and Without A Hint of Defensiveness

A heartfelt apology not only melts anger, but it is also the right thing to do when we’re at fault. Even if we’re not at fault, we can practice empathy by feeling “with” other people and expressing regret for a bad experience.

Tossing out a half-felt apology, or a businesslike “sorry about that” without much feeling in it only makes matters worse. Obviously, we should align to the customer’s feelings, and sometimes a cheerful “sorry” is all they need from us. But in a conflict situation, we may need to apologize over and over until we are sure the customer really hears us and believes what we are saying.

Getting defensive is a recipe for escalating conflict and never a good idea. We may feel a certain satisfaction when we win the fight and the other person loses, but we’ll destroy loyalty in the process.

The defensive apology is a loyalty killer.

Ask How We Can Make Things Right

Offering more help than is expected is a good practice for recovering from a mess-up. Maybe it’s personal service. Maybe it’s a free rental day. Maybe you pick up the check. Whatever it is, offer it—the gesture might help win you the person’s loyalty after all.

Assure the Person We Will Follow Through, And Then Do It

Customers will be delighted when they see you’ve kept your commitment and that your gesture wasn’t just lip service. They’ll understand that your efforts go beyond the time you spent directly with them and that their concerns weren’t immediately dismissed.

Some problems may take a few people or a few days to completely resolve. Create reminders for yourself to complete your follow through. Seeing the process through to the end earns loyalty from customers now and avoids possible conflicts in the future.

Closing the Loop

In addition to the using the 5 “A’s” to defuse a conflict and turn a potential detractor into a promoter, “close the loop” to find out what caused the problem in the first place and then do an appropriate fix.

As customer-facing managers and employees, we’re responsible for closing the loop—even if we don’t have a good system. If something bad happens, ask yourself, “What are the root causes of this incident? What is the standard we should be meeting? Why aren’t we meeting that standard? What could we do to prevent or at least reduce the chances of something like this happening again?” The answers to these questions often come from following up with customers to learn more details about the incident.

Many customers don’t care about the root causes of their problem, but we should so that we can prevent it from cropping up again. So we tell customers we are trying to improve the quality of our service, and their help will be valuable in pinpointing issues.

Sometimes a customer’s problem takes time to solve. So, we need to own it all the way to the solution, no matter how long it takes. Our persistence alone might earn the loyalty of an unhappy customer.

What about online customers? Do they really care if we own their issues and follow up with them?

All of the guidelines we’ve talked about apply equally well to customers on the floor, online, or on the phone.

The best follow-up might come in two phases: one prompt, one delayed. Don’t let the problem hang; on the other hand, don’t solve and forget. Be quick and slow. Fix the hair in the soup immediately, then email/text/ring up the customer in a couple of weeks, apologize again, and offer a nice reward for coming back. Create reminders so you’ll remember to follow up in the future. 

Leading Customer Loyalty will help you embed the Three Core Loyalty Principles – empathy, responsibility, and generosity – into every interaction so you can crack the code to your customers’ devotion. Pre-order your copy before 4/16 and receive exclusive bonus offers. 

About the Author

Sandy Rogers

Sandy Rogers leads FranklinCovey’s Loyalty Practice. He was previously Senior Vice President at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. During his 14 years there, Sandy managed the turnaround of the London, England operation and led the teams that developed Enterprise’s marketing strategy and system for improving customer service across all branches. Before Enterprise, Sandy worked in marketing at Apple Computer and at P&G. He is graduate of Duke and Harvard Business School.

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