When it’s time to take your business elsewhere, here’s the right way to exit

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By Christopher Elliott

Can we talk about the end? It’s that moment when you say, “That’s it. I’m taking my business elsewhere.” And you mean it.

It’s the moment when you conclude your interests and a company’s interests are no longer aligned, to put it delicately. It’s time to go.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to leave. I know because I watch people do it all the time, every day. Heck, I’ve had it done to me both on a professional and, sadly, personal level. I have a lot of experience with this.

A recent American Express survey suggests consumers are trigger-happy. After only a single instance of poor customer service, 37 percent of respondents bail out on a company. Another 58 percent say they’d be willing to endure “two to three” instances of bad service. In other words, for 95 percent of American consumers, businesses get three chances at most to get customer service right.

Here’s what you need to know: There’s a right way and a wrong way to split. Almost no one ever hears about the right way, but the wrong way sometimes goes viral.

“You’re already familiar with this story?” asks Andrew Pollis, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University. “It’s about a guy who tried to cancel his account with Comcast and was met with a super-aggressive customer service representative who wasn’t really offering any inducements but also wouldn’t let the customer go.”

That’s not how to go your separate ways.

Pollis says it’s common with companies in certain industries, like cable TV. (Related: Yes, you can find an honest business. Here’s how.)

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“That interaction provides an opportunity to rescue business from an impending cancellation,” he explains. “So they have developed interceptive measures. In some instances, a telephone representative is armed with the tools to offer an inducement, like a discounted rate, to entice the consumer not to leave.” (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problem.)

So how do you say “good-bye”? (Related: When is a gas station not a convenience store?)

Know why you’re leaving

When David Waring, the co-founder of FitSmallBusiness.com, decided to cancel his email marketing software, he knew exactly why. “We found it more complicated to use than originally advertised, and more expensive than another less complicated but just as powerful option,” he says. “So we decided to cancel.” Some customers don’t know why they’re leaving. Maybe they’re just mad at the company, or at themselves, for something over which the business doesn’t even have any control. When a retention specialist phoned Waring, he was ready with an explanation — and a step-by-step process for winning back his business. (It didn’t work, and he left.)

Use logic, not emotion

Worth emphasizing is that emotion — anger or resentment toward the company — can ruin a perfectly orderly departure. “I advise my clients to leave only for goal-achieving reasons, not tension-relieving reasons,” says Debra Benton, an executive coach. “And then do it in the same manner you’d like it done to you: with logic, not emotion; with notification, not just walking out the door. Give them the respect and courtesy you’d like to get.” It’s worth noting that roughly a quarter of customers who leave end up coming back at some point, so Benton says anger will not serve you well in this situation.

Get out legally (if you can)

And that may not be easy, especially if you’re under contract with the business. You’ll have to read the paperwork and find a legal way to cut your ties. And you might have to get creative. “Assuming you signed a contract, that means they have to provide goods and services to you at the time you exchange money,” says Jameson Drew, who runs a property management company in Los Angeles. “Did said contractor perform sub par, was anything illegally done, or did you just get a better price elsewhere?” If you can get out legally, do it. If not, you may need to negotiate your departure. That’s a topic for another time.

Don’t burn bridges

People change and companies change. A bad company today may improve, and when it does, you might want to bring your business back. “If the company is important to me and there are significant personal or working relationships with the company, then it’s worth investing in closing the relationship carefully,” says Don Maruska, author of the book “How Great Decisions Get Made.” In business, as in life, there’s no point in alienating the person or company you’re separating from. Keep it professional.

If you feel as if this has turned into a relationship column, give yourself a pat on the back. It is all about relationships.

“Human beings sit on the other side of the table,” says Will Bachman the co-founder of Umbrex, a global community management consultants. “And it is a small world.”

Some day, he notes, you may want to work with the company again. “So, when terminating a relationship, do it with respect and play the infinite game. That is, act as if you’ll be interacting with the other party countless times in the future,” he says.

Good advice. And as someone who has been terminated, fired, dissed and dumped over a lengthy career as a consumer advocate, I can only underscore, highlight and emphasize the wisdom of those words.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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