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. 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.

In this article, we’ll cover:

1)     How to conduct killer exit interviews

2)     Expert ways to dig deep and discover the most valuable information from exiting customers

3)     How to take that valuable data and use it to prevent other customers from leaving 

The purpose of the exit interview is to gather valuable customer feedback to better understand why customers have chosen to leave, and to prevent future churn.

This valuable data can be used cross-functionally to reduce churn and increase revenues:

Your Product team will be able to build the feature requirements most tied to revenue and churn.

Your Marketing team will be able to use the feedback to create stronger messaging and attract better fitting customers.

Your Customer Success and Sales will be able to set better expectations in the sales process and across the customer journey.

By having a systematic exit interview strategy, you’ll capture critical insights to make faster revenue-driving changes.

Before we jump in, I want to talk briefly about the different levels of data. This will help you understand why it’s critical to have both quantitative and qualitative data methods in your customer feedback strategy.

Customer feedback data falls into 3 categories:

data depth

General Data is broad information that is collected, viewed and analyzed at the population level. What General Data   is good at is showing trends over a period of time. Given its power to show trends over time, one of the advantages of general data is that it can be used for benchmarking and trend analysis.

Some examples are CSAT, NPS, CES and cancellation surveys where answers are pre-populated like a scale or a small choice of responses.

Medium Data is in the middle — between very broad General Data and very specific Deep Data. Unlike General Data which consists of quick questions which can be answered in less than 10 seconds, Medium Data takes longer to answer and gives greater insights into what individuals are thinking.

The greatest advantage in Medium Data over General Data is the respondent is able to answer the open-ended questions in their own words.

 

If analyzed correctly, responses to open-ended questions can also be categorized for themes which can be tracked over time. Unlike General Data which is numerical and can be easily plotted on graphs, changes in themes over time require monitoring which need to be added and deleted as patterns are noticed. Changing themes are a good indication of how customer needs, desires and wants are shifting, and can be very useful in making strategic decisions.

 

Surveys are the most common type of Medium Data. Surveys can be created for a number of reasons such as gathering feedback on new product features or services, or for giving clarity on a specific issue.

NPS, CSAT, CES and cancellation surveys where customers can write in or explain their responses.

Deep Data is by far the most valuable and useful information to companies.  Because it goes so deep into their thoughts, feelings, goals and desires, Deep Data yields information not readily accessible by both General and Medium Data methods. In many ways, Deep Data is the true Voice of the Customer.

 

Without question, Deep Data is the most expensive, time consuming and labor-intensive way to gather critical customer data. General Data, on the other hand, is the cheapest, easiest, and requires the least amount of effort to interpret the results. While Medium Data sits in between these extremes.

It’s because of the time and effort involved in collecting Deep Data that the information gathered is the most insightful and the most valuable to any business.

 

All interviews have a 3 Step Interview Process.

Pre-Interview
The Interview
Post-Interview

3 Step Interview
Step 1

Step 1: Pre-Interview

Within the Pre-Interview step, there are the 5Ps (also known as the Strategic Interview Plan)

5Ps (Strategic Interview Plan)

Purpose of the interviews

Plan for the people and data

Pre-write the questions

Populate with the right people (if possible)

Practice

5Ps

Purpose of the interviews

This one seems obvious, but the purpose of the interviews may differ according to what you’re looking to achieve.

For example, you might only be interested in interviewing decision-makers when they churn.

Or you might be interested in learning the top 3 reasons why certain product users churn.

Or you maybe you want to understand why accounts of a certain size are leaving.

As you can see, the reasons for conducting exit interviews are different.

By selecting 1 purpose for conducting the interview, everything you do around the exit interviews will be aligned with this 1 purpose.

Having 1 purpose means:

Clarity—throughout the process. If something isn’t clearly aligned with the 1 purpose, it isn’t included.

Comparison—at the end of the interviews, you can compare results across every single person interviewed. This is important because you want to make sure what you’re hearing from your customers isn’t by accident.

Completeness—the one goal helps ensure the entire process of creating, executing and acting on the exit interviews is completed.

Plan for the people and the data

This is the stage where your exit interview strategy succeeds or fails.

Planning this part will help the rest of the process run smoothly.

Let’s start with Planning for the People.

 

#1. Who is the interviewer?
Interviewing is a skill. Just like with sales, you have ok salespeople, good salespeople and your all-stars salespeople.

What differentiates the ok and the all-star salespeople is skill.

Interviewing is a skill that takes years to perfect. But even in a few months, your interviewers can become good at interviewing your churned customers.

You’ll want 2 dedicated team members to undertake ALL the exit interviews.

The reason to dedicate team members is
— it builds their interviewing skills
— they’ll be better able to identify emerging information (new reasons why customers are leaving)
— they won’t be associated with the customer
–if one of them is unavailable or changes jobs, you still have a trained interviewer available

You might be wondering about point #3 – they won’t be associated with the customer.
This might seem counterintuitive given the CSM for the account already has established relationships.

The reason why you want an interviewer who isn’t associated with the account is because of the customer can feel free to be more honest about their feelings without worrying they might hurt the feelings of the CSM that they know.

#2. What is the appreciation/thank you gift

The customer is leaving. The exit interview is your last chance to speak with them before they go.  The customer has generously offered to spend time they can never get back, just to be interviewed by your team.
The customer truly has no obligation to do this.
The customer is helping you without benefit to them.

This is your opportunity to make a good last impression – even if the customer is very unhappy.

The appreciation/thank you gift should be a choice of 2 different options:
1) to donate a set dollar amount in their name to the charity of their choice
2) a set dollar amount gift card

You’ll want to set aside some budget to cover the cost of these options.
You can choose how much each option should cost.

I generally suggest $50-$150 depending on what level you’re interviewing (end-user versus decision-maker). Anything less than this doesn’t show the value of their time. Anything more than this and it may appear as if you’re trying to entice them to come back.

NOTE: Do not mention the appreciation/thank you gift when asking customers to participate. The gift is meant to be a surprise – one final way to get them to see your company in a more positive light. In order for it to be effective at seeing your company in a more positive light, you cannot let them know about the gift in advance.

Just as you need to plan the people part of your exit interview strategy, you’ll also need to plan the data part.

The most common mistake is that companies overlook this step.

We’re all eager to start talking to customers but the real driver of change is what you do with the data you gather.

Let’s focus on the 2nd part of Planning for the People and the Data.

Planning for the Data

One of the reasons companies shy away from undertaking interviews is the amount of work that goes into transcribing the interview data.

At one time, this was done manually.

For a 30-minute interview, you could expect it to take up to 1.5 hours to transcribe, clean, categorize, and analyze the data.

There are 4 W’s to consider around your exit interview data:

1)     Who owns the data?
         Is that you?
         Someone on the team?

2)     Who can access the data?
         Within your department? Outside (product, sales, marketing)?

3)     Who will analyze the data?
         Who will take the time to clean and analyze the data?
         (AI platforms are great at quick transcription but they make a lot of errors.
         At this point, someone needs to correct the AI’s mistakes.)
         Who will that be?
         Who will analyze the data to look for trends between customers and over time?

4)     Who is responsible for determining actionable items?

         Who is responsible for executing on them?

         Within your department? Outside (product, sales, marketing)?

4Ws

Pre-write the questions

Now the fun stuff! This is where you get to determine the types of questions you want answered.

As with everything you’re doing with the exit interviews, the questions have to reflect the purpose that you determined in the “1st P: Purpose of the Interviews”.

If this is your first-time running exit interviews, for simplicity’s sake, do not involve other teams in the process just yet. You’ll want to have a full trial run of the exit interview process before bringing in other teams.

If you currently run exit interviews, input from other teams into the types of questions to ask is welcome – so long as the questions they’re wanting answered are aligned with the goal determined in “1st P: Purpose of the Interviews”.

Exit interviews should be no more than 30 minutes.

This means approximately 5- 10 questions only.

Questions should be categorized into 2 or 3 themes.

For example, if your goal is to understand why accounts of a certain size are leaving, your themes might be:

1)     Reasons for leaving — why, how they felt, how they came to the decision

2)     Product — what they hoped to achieve with the product, what did they like, what didn’t they like

3)     Communications — were there too many touches, not enough, what did they like, what didn’t they like

Just from this example alone, I have 3 themes and 10 questions.
That’s plenty of questions for a 30-minute interview.

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Populate with the right people (as much as possible)

Populating with the right people is critical for the success of your exit interview strategy.

Depending on the purpose of the interviews you decided in the beginning of the 5Ps (Strategic Interview Plan), who you invite will differ.

If you’re purpose is to get a better understanding of all customers in the account, then you’ll be reaching out to everyone.

However, if you’re just wanting to speak with decision-makers, you’ll be reaching out only to them.

This matters because you want to have enough customers participate so you can start seeing patterns. You start seeing patterns in the responses when you get with 10 or more interviews.

When you’re first starting out, assume that 5-10% of people will chose to participate (for self-success and low touch) and 25-30% (high touch), unless you have a very good customer engagement strategy.

There are 2 ways to recruit customers into your exit interviews:

1)     Via cancellation survey

2)     Directly ask them to participate

Recruiting via survey

If you have a customer base that is self-success (low touch/tech touch), the best way to recruit customers is through a cancellation survey.

The cancellation survey will provide you with some details about their reasons for cancelling. You can ask if they’d be willing to participate in a call to better understand those reasons.

If your customer base is high touch, asking for direct participation is the best course to take. You can do this by email or on a call or even at the last QBR/EBR.

As is the case with most of us, once we’ve decided to leave (a place, a job, a relationship), our minds start focusing on the future and we want to move forward and leave the past behind.

This is the biggest obstacle you’re facing in getting participants for your exit interviews –

in their minds, they have already moved on.

That’s why it’s so important to ask for these interviews as soon as you find out the customer is leaving.

Each minute, hour, day or week that slips by means your customers are less likely to participate.

Practice

I touched on this earlier – interviewing is a skill.

Before your interviewers start interviewing customers, they should practice mock interviews with the team. Use the questions you’ve created to see how they flow and if they need to be changed.

Assign different scenarios to your mock customers so that some are leaving with a positive experience of your company and others are leaving with a negative experience.

Encourage your mock customers to express different emotions like joy, anger, disappointment and ambivalence.

The interviewers will experience this range of emotions when they interview real customers. It’s immensely helpful for the interviewers to learn how to handle these emotions in practice scenarios where they can safely make mistakes and learn new ways of handling the interview process.

Step 2

Step 2: The Interview

Interviews are fantastic! This is where you can get deep knowledge that can inform action and help lead to stronger decisions.

I’m not going to spend much time here but I’ll take you through the basic structure of an interview.

1)     Intro
This is where trust is built. If it’s done well, the customer should feel comfortable that they can share their true responses to your questions. They will open up and share those things that typically are locked inside. This is the gold you’re searching for.

2)     Ask questions
This is pretty straightforward. You’ll want to be aware of how you ask and when to probe for more details.  

3)     Close
This is where you’ll close the interview and offer the appreciation/thank you gift.

This is probably the best time to mention this – record all your exit interviews.
You will need them recorded so you can transcribe and analyze them.

Step 3

Step 3: Post-Interview

With the interviews completed, now it’s time to make sense of the data and start tying it to team and company objectives and metrics.

I suggest collecting all your interviews into one place that those teams and people who you identified earlier can easily access.

This could be a VOC program, CRM, or even a Google Drive spreadsheet file.

 

#1. Broadly Categorize According to Your Themes

You chose these themes back in Step 1 when you were pre-writing the interview questions.

I gave this example:
For example, if your goal is to understand why accounts of a certain size are leaving, your themes might be:

1)     Reasons for leaving — why, how they felt, how they came to the decision

2)     Product — what they hoped to achieve with the product, what did they like, what didn’t they like

3)     Communications — were there too many touches, not enough, what did they like, what didn’t they like

The themes you’ll categorize with are: Reasons for Leaving, Product and Communications.

It’ll look something like this:

categorizing themes

#2. Look for Positive and Negative Sentiment

The quickest way to determine actionable insights that can lead to churn reduction is by categorizing the interviews by sentiment  – positive, negative and neutral.

sentiment pos neg neutral

This will provide you with an overall sentiment. In this example, you can see that out of the 55 interviews, 34 had some sort of negative sentiment.

#3. Look for Smaller Themes

As you read through the interviews, you’ll see there are smaller themes that you can categorize. These become the areas where actionable insights occur. In the example I’m going to show you, you can see that attention to detail and responsiveness are two new smaller themes. Just note that the examples I’m going to give you from this point forward are not exit interviews. They’re equally as useful for your customer feedback strategy as they are for your exit interviews.

smaller theme categorization

Rank the smaller themes according to the biggest impact on churn and revenue.

#4. Stories/Case Studies/Use Cases

This is the best part of conducting exit interviews – the stories/case studies/use cases.

If trust was properly established in the intro of the interview, the customer should feel comfortable enough to share their true, deep responses, rather than their socially acceptable, surface level ones.

Customers will open up and tell you stories – good and bad. Often in those stories, you’ll hear their true thoughts – this is because they’re speaking and we don’t filter our thoughts in speech as much as we do in text.

In reading through the transcripts, you’ll find stories – for case studies and discover some new use cases.

Here’s an example I want you read. See if you can figure out the main story being told here and the possible outcome that may happen with this particular customer.

story

The main story here is that this customer has gone from being satisfied with the service to now experiencing frustration. The outcome of this, if this situation continues, is that this customer is at high risk of churning.

These stories become the basis to brainstorm the right improvements to address the situation raised by the customer.

Because they’re the customer’s actual words, thoughts and feelings, it becomes harder to disregard or question their words, thoughts and feelings.

You’ll also want to look at the CSM’s internal notes about the reasons the customer gave as to why they’re leaving.

You may discover there’s a bigger gap than anticipated between the CSM’s notes and the customer’s view in the exit interview.

The last point about the stories/case studies/new use cases is that by recording the exit interview, you can include portions of the video or audio or text in your presentation to your internal stakeholders and set the stage for powerful discussions.

#5. Sharing the Results to Drive Action

By this point, you’re ready to share the results of your interviews with those teams and team members you identified back in Step 1 – the pre-interview stage.

 

Send email to internal stakeholders informing them of the trends.

Meet with internal stakeholders to review feedback.

Assign actions in an accessible place to the respective area of business where the churn or revenue impact will be the greatest.

Measure the change in sentiment over time.

Email internal stakeholders to get updates on progress and provide visibility into the impact of actions. If the customer left because of a feature that’s lacking, reach out to let them know when this feature might be available. (If necessary, hand this off to your sales team to follow up.)

Reconnect with your customer roughly 90 days after the last date of service. You never know – if they’re working with a competitor, they might not be satisfied and are willing to reconsider.
Create a special offer for cancelled clients. For example, they could come back within a specific time frame without incurring implementation fees a second time.

Principles to Guide You

#1. The customer is doing you a favour by participating. They have no stake in this. But you do. Respect the value they’re giving and their time – which they will never get back.

#2. Dig down into the feelings. All decisions are made on emotions first and then backed up by cognitive processes. It’s not enough to find out why they cancelled. It’s not enough to understand their thinking. You want to know how they felt. What impact did that decision have on them? Their team?  Sentiment will point out the gaps in expectation. That’s where you’ll find the most actionable information to effect better churn management.

#3. Getting a high participation rate for your exit interviews and for all of your customer feedback means you need a strong customer feedback engagement strategy and system. High participation rates don’t happen in a vacuum – they’re purposefully created and developed.

As much as you can, let your customers know they are valued and that their opinion matters. Show them this (not tell them) and they’ll happily participate in your surveys and interviews.

 

Lastly,
Not every customer can be saved. Not every customer should be saved.

But if you have a strong customer feedback strategy and system, you can gain that valuable information that leads to lower churn and higher revenues.

A mini guide on how to conduct customer exit interviews.
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Customer Exit Interviews