Don’t block the exit: How shitty cancellation policies cause more customers to abandon brands

Jennifer BaileyArticlesLeave a Comment

“You can’t cancel until you answer this 3 question survey,” or “We are sorry to hear that you are leaving us, but before you do, you’ll need to schedule an appointment with a customer service rep.”


As marketers, we’ve all been there. We’ve had to email customer service to cancel a subscription. Sometimes emailing the same customer service email multiple months in a row after they fail to respond.

Even worse is online ordering. You can buy almost anything online, but the return policies make me want to stick with Amazon for everything. Who wants to submit a ticket to China requesting a refund on an item that you bought thinking you were supporting a local business? Only to be told that your email wasn’t read within the 7-day return window, and therefore you are no longer eligible for that return. Or your international tracking number shows your order stuck in the middle of the ocean for weeks, but customer service won’t respond to you.

This kind of horrible customer service makes me want to stick with Amazon for everything. But it’s not just a massive overload of badly-made clothes that are half the size they should be, it’s also a way for companies to block the exit – and keep their customers longer than they really want to stay.

Blocking the Exit Gives Consumers “the Ick”

You know the feeling of revulsion or disgust that you can get in the early stages of dating someone new? Yeah, brands can give consumers the ick, too. Companies can’t force consumers into a relationship with them. And once you have a bad experience with a brand, it’s hard to get rid of the feeling of disappointment, or sometimes disgust depending on the situation.

What happens when our customers don’t love us, or just aren’t ready for our product or service and need to take a break? Are we only going to be good to them if they have their wallet ready?

Blocking the exit can make customers:

  • Get angry or frustrated
  • Feel overwhelmed or disappointed
  • Have buyers remorse
  • Speak negatively about the brand in public or on social media
  • Leave crappy reviews on Google, Facebook, BBB, etc
  • Never ever return

As company and brand owners, don’t we want our customers to love us? To adore and speak kindly about us? To even promote us and become our biggest ambassadors? Even if your customers are leaving, giving them the same positive experience that they got when they arrived can leave them with positive emotions associated with your brand, even if they weren’t satisfied with their product or service.

How to Give Great Customer Service to Cancelled Customers

Consumers want three things: first, to get what they are paying for, second, to be in control of their own wallet, and third, to get excellent customer service. According to a Zendesk Customer Experience Report 2021:

  • 75% of customers are willing to spend more on a brand that provides a great experience.
  • 80% of customers will leave after more than one bad experience.
  • Service requests have increased 20% since the COVID regulations hit.

Example 1: Verizon Sent me to Collections for a Service I Never Had

Some time ago, we ordered a landline phone from our only local provider – Verizon. I spent over an hour on the phone just waiting to order service. But once it was scheduled, the tech never came to install it. Then the bill came. This was plenty enough for us to know that this was not a company we could trust to do business with. (If you cant find your a** from a hold in the ground, then I probably don’t want to give you my credit card number, either.)

As a dinosaur company who refuses change, there was no easy way to cancel my account except to call back and wait on hold for another hour or two. After holding, the customer service rep apologized and told me that my bills were erased. Shortly thereafter, we got another bill. This time I put it in writing that we never had service and did not owe them any money.

Sure enough, we now have a collections bill on our hands.

Example 2: Aflac Policies Take 7 Hours to Cancel

I’ve always been happy with our Aflac policies, until the time came when we no longer needed all of them. Like Verizon, Aflac is in the dinosaur ages – and if you have ever tried to upload your claim documents on their website you would understand. But talking to the company outside of your own personal sales rep is almost impossible.

The holding time to talk to an agent is 7 hours the last time I checked. And as far as I have been told, the only way to cancel is to fax or mail them a written request. So, wait on hold or 7 hours, go to town to pay for a fax machine (because seriously nobody has a damn fax machine anymore), or wait for the mail and you will never know if your letter was actually received.

Example 3: SEMRush requires you to email a random person to make any account changes

Don’t get me wrong – I love SEMRush. This is the diamond in the rough as this customer service experience hasn’t broken my feelings towards the brand. Maybe its the tipping point where the quality of the product outweighs their growth challenges. I think its worth mentioning that sometimes features aren’t built in yet, or growing companies like SEMRush or Brightlocal are still trying to figure some things out. (Side note example – Brightlocal also makes you email a customer service rep to cancel, ask you to meet with a rep first, and then make you take an extra step to stop the billing procedures).

I think the most frustrating thing about this process is that you have to monitor your own ticket. Managing business expenses isn’t always easy, and if you are adjusting your bill it should be fully in your control. You should never have to rely on Zendesk, or the man behind the curtain, so to speak.

Here are some ways you can also offer great customer service, and avoid the exit from being blocked

Exit strategies should be part of a customer service plan. How are you going to treat a customer who wants a refund? Companies should have reasonable boundaries, while also delighting customers who are exiting. Here are some was to avoid bad blood with your exes, while creating a revolving door so they know they can come back:

  • Make cancellation as easy as possible
  • Be supportive of your customers no matter what they choose
  • Offer live support by chat if phone calls are an issue
  • Use support reps who speak kindly
  • Don’t beg them to stay
  • Have a non-invasive nurture series setup after they leave
  • Open the door for feedback, but don’t necessarily ask them to take a survey

Customer service has really come a long way, and consumers expect a lot more. Its our job as brand owners to meet the growing demand for great customer service. How are you changing the customer service game in your industry?

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