Jun 18, 2021

Read Time 9 min

Q&A: How to Conduct Customer Exit Interviews and Use What You Learn to Fight Churn


It’s never easy learning that a customer is leaving. But as they prepare to leave, you have a rare opportunity to find out why. Customer exit interviews, when properly structured and executed, provide a unique chance to dig deep and discover valuable information which can lead to actionable churn-preventing insights.

Anita Toth, Chief Churn Crusher, joined us for a webinar to discuss how to:

  • Conduct killer customer exit interviews
  • Dig deep and discover the most valuable information from exiting customers
  • Take that valuable data and use it to prevent other customers from leaving

If you missed the webinar, you can watch it on-demand.

Q&A Recap

Speaker: Anita Toth, Chief Churn Crusher


Q: Should you mention the thank you gift offer in the initial outreach or at the close of the interview?

A: You don’t mention it at all until you are in the interview. You are at that close stage where you’re shutting everything down. Then, you mention that those options are available. The reason why you want to do this is because you want the customer to be surprised, even if they’re leaving and even if their experience was miserable. It’s one last opportunity to make a really good impression.

The challenge with exit interviews, if you’re offering that thank you or appreciation gift as a way to entice them to participate, it might feel like you’re trying to win them back. The key thing about the exit interviews is that there should be no attempt at all at sales. You’re not trying to win them back. The whole purpose is to understand why they made this decision to leave and to know where along the path – whether it’s product, whether it’s communications, whether it’s an internal challenge – you’re trying to understand that big picture reason why they left. You want to keep that as the surprise.

Let’s say that the customer was really upset. They took this interview with you. They told you everything they want to say. When you surprise them at the end and go, “Hey, by the way, we’d like to thank you for your time,” I’ve never ever, in all of the hundreds of interviews I’ve done, I’ve never had anyone say, “Oh yeah, no thanks.” There’s always that moment of surprise. Depending on how the interview went, depending on their experience, they might be kind of, “What does this mean?” You can be very clear and say this is not an attempt to lure you back. We simply want to acknowledge the time you took with us today – because that’s 30 minutes of their time they will never get back – to help us better understand the reason why you left and your experience with our company.


Q: Should you avoid approaching angry churning customers or use a different style?

A: It is hard. There’s no doubt about it. I don’t think anyone enjoys interactions with a really angry person, particularly when you don’t really understand why they’re so upset.

Yes, lean into it. I’ll tell you the reason why. If a customer is angry, that means they’re obviously experiencing some really big emotion. Really big emotion means that somewhere in there, there was a big expectation gap. If you can discover what it is, those customers – now this is just a generalization – sometimes will come back. Because they’re upset and because something didn’t quite work out. If you can figure out what that is, there might be opportunity in the future to put that back in front of them. When you go through the mini guide, it talks about reaching out after those 90 days, and asking them how things are going, if there’s a particular feature they were waiting for, where it is in the roadmap. Whatever it may be that they talked about in their interview, just let them know that perhaps there’s been progress made on it and just start the discussion. Obviously, you’re not looking to win them back again in 90 days, but it can be a really great place to start that discussion.

Your happiest customers and your most unhappy customers are going to give you the greatest amount of information and that’s because their emotions are so strong. As tough as it is – and yes, it’s going to be difficult – if you can bear that in mind, when you’re going to interview these types of customers, I’m telling you the information that you will get is worth the little bit of nerves that you might have going into those types of interviews. They’re going to tell you exactly what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and why they were so disappointed.


Q: Should you conduct one-on-one interviews using a survey format?

A: The great thing with surveys is they can be done at scale. They’re cheap. You just send them out to tons of people. If you remember back, I had that graph of general, medium, and deep data. Surveys where they can type some sort of answer back would be medium data. The reason why it’s medium is that you can’t ask questions. All you get is whatever they typed. You have to guess the context. You have to try to understand, “Well, what did they really mean by this? Is this for everything? Is this just one unique situation?” You have no clue.

With interviews, you get to ask questions like, “Tell me more about this,” or “What does this mean to you?” Through that probing, you start to get an understanding of how they think, how they feel, and what those expectations are. Any type of interview that’s not one-on-one and face-to-face where people are talking, you’re just not going to have that ability to probe and really get those deep answers you’re looking for.


Q: If you require customers to have a phone call when they request to cancel, should you still have a separate exit interview or conduct the interview during that time?

A: I’ve seen two different scenarios. One, is with the cancelation call, where the purpose of the call is to try to win back the customer. If that’s the case, then no, you don’t want to do the interview. The focus is different.

If the call is to truly help them cancel and maybe find out the reasons why, I would still go through and do an interview. We’re talking 30 minutes. I’ve never heard one of those cancelation calls go for 30 minutes.

The reason is with your exit interviews, you’re using the exact same questions. Whether it’s an outside agency or those two interviewers on your team, they get really good at knowing how to probe. Whereas, if it’s just a cancelation call, the customer might think it takes five minutes. Suddenly, you have them on the phone for 30. They’re not happy. They just wanted to cancel and go. Give them the option.

To sum up, if it’s the first case where the cancelation call is to try to win back, then you would not offer a customer interview. That would just be the purpose. If the purpose of the call is to understand a little bit about why they canceled, you can have a little script there. Get the general understanding, and then ask them if they’d be willing to talk to you to understand those reasons a little deeper.


Q: Should you share the questions with the customer before the interview?

A: You want to do it in the meeting. The reason is, it’s just off the cuff. You ask the question, and they will give you an answer. Then, you probe again. You want to ask them to describe it a little more. How did you feel? What did you think? What happened next? All those questions you want to be able to ask and what you want is their genuine response. Whatever it is in the moment.

Just think of the interviews you’ve had, even for a job. You don’t see the questions we’re going to ask you in advance. Why? Because you’re looking for the genuine reaction. You’ll see it across someone’s face. You want to record. You want to see what their faces did. Did they give a look? Even if it’s momentarily, that will give you an indication of “Hm, maybe I should just ask a little further about that. They seem sort of surprised by that question I asked.”


Q: If the customer leaves due to budget or pricing, what are actionable outcomes?

A: That’s always a challenge. Dig deeper. This is why the exit interviews are such gold. On pricing and budget, what you usually find is, although it’s given as the number-one reason, the real answer is driving below. You’re going to get your surface-level answer: “It’s just too expensive for us. We don’t have the budget right now.” Underneath, you discover that other decisions were made and priorities shifted within the company. Those priorities shifting drove the reason that we don’t have the budget anymore. The budget has just been allocated somewhere else. Find out. That’s why you want to dig. That’s why you want to ask those questions. If it’s around budget: “Can you tell me a little bit about how that decision was made?”

Once they start describing, then you can ask other questions around what they plan to do now that this software is not available to them. How are they going to handle that particular challenge now that they’re not using your software? Budget and pricing are often not the real reasons. Surface level will give you that. For the deeper stuff, find out what actually happened and what drove the decision to allocate the budget elsewhere.


Q: What are the benefits and downsides to Sales hosting customer exit interviews instead of Customer Success? 

A: Sales tends to see every customer interview through the lens of sales. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not so great here. The whole reason why the appreciation thank-you gift is withheld to the end, and they don’t know about it, is because you do not want this to somehow become a sales call. I don’t think there’s a single person who enjoys being hoodwinked, lied to, or deceived. That’s what can very easily happen if Sales does this. That’s just who they are. It’s what they do all day long. It’s kind of like asking a dog to become a cat. They can’t. That’s who they are. So really, this needs to come from Customer Success. [Customer Success] is great at digging in and wanting to learn more about the customers and the challenges they have. This is why it’s a natural fit for the Customer Success team to do the customer exit interviews. Please leave sales out. I know it sounds easier if they take it over, but really, Customer Success, you guys have this already. It’s just needs to be developed a little further. That’s all it is.


Q: How do you probe customers to give more detail or information?

 A: My favorite question is “Tell me more about…” Ask what success mean to them. Ask them, “Tell me more about what success means to you. What does success look like for you? How will you know you’ve been successful?” Just ask, “Tell me more. What will that look like? How will you feel? How will you know?” Those are the types of questions you want to ask.

If someone’s clamming up, like they really don’t want to tell you anything, acknowledge it. Come right out and say, “This seems to be really challenging for you or really difficult. I don’t intend it to be.” Acknowledge that it’s uncomfortable. Restate the purpose. Because trust hasn’t been established in those first few minutes. They don’t feel that they can trust you and that you really are not trying to sell them or you’re not trying to win them back or you’re not trying to manipulate them. Go in with a curious mind, and look at it that way, rather than “Wow, this is a customer that left and I might hear things I hate.” If you go in with that, then your questions and how you interview will lead to that. But if you go in with genuine curiosity, customers will pick up on it. They will know. With that, they will slowly open up and tell you more and more.

But, if they’re really stuck, next time you do an interview, work a little more on building that trust and letting them know this is not sales. I’m not trying to win you back. I’m not trying to use this information to somehow harm you or your company going forward. Let them know. Establish trust.


Q: Aside from customer exit interviews, at what other points in the customer lifecycle should you conduct customer interviews?

A: Everywhere. Of course, it really depends on if we’re talking enterprise, or if we’re talking tech-touch. The onboarding process, we know what a challenge that can be. It’s one of the best places to start. Exit interviews are at the end of the process. Go to the beginning and go through. There’s nothing wrong with asking your customers about the process. Especially if your onboarding process is quite long and takes several months, it might not hurt to do mini-interviews, 15 or 20 minutes. Get a sense of within that process, what were the expectations, what were some of their challenges, what did they not expect to happen that did, how did they handle it? All those things.

The more you ask questions of “why”, like why is it like this? How can we change this? What impact that did this have? Look at your customer journey and see if there are places where we’re not really sure what’s going on here. Then, you can apply the interviews there. 

Let’s say an account – if you use a health score – was green and now they’re yellow. You want to find out a little bit more about what happened. Let’s say you have a meeting and you’re still not getting at it. Maybe this is a great time to do an interview with preset questions. You’ll start seeing patterns with the more customers you talk to. You want to see what those patterns are. Maybe it’s a certain segment or a certain firmographic, or maybe there’s a challenge in that part of the customer journey. Then, ask them for those interviews. It never hurts to dig a little deeper and gain a little more knowledge.

To learn more about how to conduct exit interviews to uncover a trove of your most candid and sincere customer feedback, watch the webinar now.

Update: Anita Toth took the time to address some of the unanswered audience questions from the webinar. Check out her additional advice on customer exit interviews here


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