How to make a customer happy even when they’re leaving you

Closing a customer account isn’t a happy occasion, but there are ways of making the most of it. We look at what community banks can do to make the experience as easy as possible—or even get them to stay.

By Carol Patton

A few months ago, one of Community First Bank’s customers said she wanted to close her checking account. Sharon Houser, assistant cashier at the $130 million-asset Maywood, Neb., bank, overheard the conversation between the woman and the bank teller and approached the customer, asking if there was anything she could do to help.

By then, the woman had made up her mind. Still, Houser reviewed her account, searched for electronic payments or automatic deposits, and inquired about outstanding checks. By asking several key questions, Houser learned that she planned on moving her money to another bank.

Quick stat


of customers are satisfied with regional and community banks, compared with 77 percent with national banks

Source: American Consumer Financial Index

“She was very, very appreciative and thanked me over and over for bringing these things to her attention, because she had not thought about that stuff,” Houser recalls. “I said if there was anything else we could do to help make the transition easier for her, that we would be glad to help, that we were there for her.”

Before the woman left, Houser asked if she would ever consider returning to the bank. The customer wouldn’t commit either way, but at least, Houser says, “The door wasn’t totally shut. There was only a pretty small gap.”

Customers close bank accounts all the time. People move. Some want better mobile tools. Others experience lifestyle changes and simply need the cash. Regardless of the reason, the way in which accounts are closed matters. Customers need to walk out the door happy and feeling like the community bank still has their back. Otherwise, instead of returning months or even years later for a new mortgage or car loan, they may never return—or, even worse, they might throw mud on your bank’s reputation every chance they get.

Easy does it

It’s a common practice for community banks to examine the ratio between the numbers of accounts opened and closed. It helps assess the bank’s health status, says Emily Sayer, national sales director at Avannis, a Denver-based consulting company that helps financial service institutions enhance their customer experience.

But banks can do more. Sayer says the following tips may stop some customers from leaving, or, at the very least, prevent them from trashing your brand either on or off social media.

Don’t panic. Many customers have several accounts. “Closing just one account doesn’t mean they don’t love your bank,” Sayer says. “Ask if there’s anything else you can consolidate to make this work better for them.”

Dig deep. Develop a list of key questions to help uncover why the customer is leaving. Some may include:

  • “Why don’t you need this account anymore?”
    It could be something simple like they were saving for a trip to Europe and reached their financial goal. If so, encourage them to keep it open for other wish-list items.
  • “What are you planning to do with these funds?”
    They may need the money to buy a new car, for example, or pay for funeral expenses. Take several moments to reflect upon their situation and express honest emotion.
  • “Are you planning on moving these funds to a different financial institution?”
    If they nod, ask: “What can I do now?” or “What could I have done better to keep your business?”

Sayer says customers rarely reveal their real reasons to avoid hurting people’s feelings, though. “What we do know is that 96 percent of customers do not share their intention to leave once they have decided to do so,” she says. Some, however, may reveal shortcomings at your bank. Understand what went wrong and find a way to fix it. Apologize and offer to personally handle their future transactions until they regain confidence and trust in your bank.

Reconfirm how bank products work. If they’re closing a free checking account, explain that it’s not hurting them financially, and suggest they keep the account open for a few months in case things change. However, Sayer says customers end up closing the account most of the time.

Avoid pushing. If customers are unwavering, make their closing experience hassle-free. Shift into relationship mode by talking about the weather, your job or your family. “Make them feel like you’re the best friend they never had when they were expecting a confrontational situation,” says Sayer, adding that such conversations should never be scripted. “In parting, give them your business card and ask if it’s OK if you touch base with them in another month or two to see if their needs are being met.”

Log, track and measure. Hire a third-party vendor to conduct a post-transaction survey to reveal painful truths behind account closures, says Sayer, adding that Avannis offers survey and benchmarking services to ICBA members at reduced rates.

“In these account-closing situations … they’ve got to be twice as happy as they are at the teller window.”
—Emily Sayer, Avannis

Among your goals is to make customers smile and feel good about this interaction long after walking out your door. “In these account-closing situations,” Sayer says, “they’ve got to be twice as happy as they are at the teller window.”

Carol Patton is a writer in Nevada.