Five Steps to Understanding Customer Retention

In my conversations with marketers, I’m frequently asked some derivative of the following question:

“What is achievable customer retention, and is there a level of customer retention that’s not profitable to reach?”

There’s no easy-bake answer to this question. It’s easy to look for a quick, published statistic or benchmark and call it a day. But how much does knowing that your retention rate is better than your competitor’s really help your business? It may help CYA, but it doesn’t help your bottom line.

Frankly, I believe that many marketers rely way too much on benchmarks (open rates, click rates, retention, etc.).

Rather than rely on industry benchmarks (I don’t even know of a comprehensive source for retention by industry), I encourage marketers to:

  • Establish a baseline for current average retention. Examine your customer base to understand average retention. Better yet, do it by customer segment if you can.
  • Understand the timeline to customer profitability. Every business has different acquisition and services costs. If you don’t know how long it takes for a new customer to become profitable, you need to figure it out. Subtract your costs to acquire and serve the customer from average customer revenue over time. Companies that are really good at this use individual customer revenue and get into cost minutia to attribute costs at an individual level and even include costs like physical plant and electricity. But if you’re just getting started, keep it simple and stick with averages.
  • Set a target retention rate. The longer it takes to become profitable, the higher the retention rate needs to be. Establishing and monitoring a retention KPI (define) will tie retention directly to business performance.
  • Define marketing tactics to improve retention. If current retention isn’t at the target level, set improving retention as a key business objective and drill down into a series of tactics aimed at moving the needle. Don’t shoot in the dark though. Engage a statistician to do some data analysis to better understand what key factors correlate to longtime customers or customers that attrite. Then, establish marketing and customer service practices and campaigns that specifically focus on encouraging the factors that are correlated with long-term customers.
  • Measure results consistently. Periodically, reevaluate the retention rate to see how what you are doing impacts customer retention. Make sure you consider metrics that help you tweak your programs at a tactical level, too. Specifically, are the tactics you’ve implemented really encouraging those factors that correlate with long-term customers?

Follow these best practices and you’ll be on your way to better understanding your customers and determining what you need to do to keep them coming back.

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