A Master Class in the Hardest Stop in the Customer Journey: The End

Image of a treasure map with a paw print path showing a dotted line. There are several icons along the paw print path, each icon is a girl and her dog playing together to represent the customer journey of a pet owner. The end of the path shows an icon of the owner and her dog going through pet euthanasia, the end of their journey.
Image by author

This article is about the part of the customer journey marketers often screw up: the ending.

I know, it’s not our fault. We spend countless hours trying to minimize churn and attrition and optimize client retention. We craft helpful reminder messages — “Did you forget this?” “Time to order more,” “Take 10% off!” and those kinds of things.

We mean well, but the critical point that we often miss is that the reason for churn and attrition may have nothing to do with what the company or marketer did.

We forget that a lot of the time, it’s not business — it’s personal.

So, now I’m going to tell you a story that a friend and colleague shared with me about how an empathetic pet goods company handled potentially losing her as a customer. Rather than hound her, they let empathy lead, and in the process, showed why they’re a top dog in the industry.

My friend’s 14-year-old dog — her constant companion and the puppy she raised alongside her children, now both in college — recently got a devastating (but common) diagnosis: bladder cancer.

Within a few weeks, it became clear the dog was suffering, so she and her family made the heartbreaking decision it was time to help their fur baby drop her body. (My friend’s words, not mine, although I appreciate the rebranding of the horrific expression “put the dog down.”)

Having lived through this heart-wrenching experience myself, I know how traumatic this can be. We don’t need statistics like the fact that pet industry expenditures are forecasted to hit $110 billion by the end of the year. Or that more than 50% of pet owners give their dog or cat a gift or treat for holidays. And even that the global pet clothing market topped $5 billion in 2020.

Pets are family, period.

Pet industry expenditure YOY graph from the research firm Statista to show how the industry has grown from $17 billion in 1994 and is projected to hit $110billion by the end of 2021. This is a line graph in the colors blue and grey to show this growth year over year.
Pet industry expenditure YOY graph from the research firm Statista to show how the industry has grown from $17 billion in 1994 and is projected to hit $110billion by the end of 2021. This is a line graph in the colors blue and grey to show this growth year over year.
Image Source: Statista

My friend decided it was too painful to look at her dog’s belongings the day after, so she spent some time putting things away. It was then that she remembered she had an unopened bag of expensive prescription dog food in the closet. So, my friend opened a chat with the vendor, Chewy.com, to see if she could return it.

It seemed to my friend (also a marketer) that “Alexis” was probably a chatbot, but she couldn’t tell. Alexis was sympathetic and kind and told my friend that there was no reason to send it back — she’d refund the amount, no problem. Alexis then mentioned that they’d suggest donating the food to a shelter, or other animal welfare organization.

That suggestion gave my friend a special purpose, which at first, was horribly painful since it was only the day after. She brought the food to her vet, who sponsors several rescue groups. The next day, my friend put a tribute to her dog on her Instagram page and tagged Chewy (among others) to thank them for allowing her to donate the food.

Chewy responded with a heartfelt comment (“We’re so, so incredibly sorry for your loss. Ginger Peaches was a fantastic pup, and a wonderful part of the family. Losing a pet can be difficult, but the memories that you two have created over the years and the time spent together is tucked safely in your heart, to bring a smile to your face. Ginger will always be remembered by those who loved her dearly, and we’ll continue to be by your side should you need anything at all, even if it’s just a shoulder to lean on. ❤️”), which was touching in its own right.

The next day, my friend received a beautiful bouquet with a handwritten card from Alexis and the Chewy.com family.

Picture of a bouquet of white, orange and yellow flowers on a dark brown wood dining room table.
Picture of a bouquet of white, orange and yellow flowers on a dark brown wood dining room table.
Image Source: Picture taken by author’s friend mentioned in article.

Now, the marketer in me knows that whoever wrote the comment likely noticed my friend is a micro-influencer with over 4K followers. But really, they’d already gotten a lot of positive social proof and pass-along value, so what more did they have to gain?

The answer is how you do anything is how you do everything. Chewy’s mission is to “be the most trusted and convenient online destination for pet parents (and partners) everywhere.” Trust is built on consistency, all the way through.

How you treat people on the way out is as important — if not more — than how you treat them on the way in.

Showing up for your customers on one of the most challenging days of their life is the definition of a great customer experience. And it’s particularly striking when the company that steps up in a personal way isn’t a mom-and-pop shop with a relatively small customer base, but a giant, publicly traded company that does multi-millions in annual sales.

There are so many reasons I love working with pet companies, but topping the list is that it’s an upbeat experience. Even when it’s at the end of the journey.

One of the companies I’m proudest to be associated with is Lap of Love, an organization that provides veterinary hospice and in-home euthanasia. (I connected my friend with Dr. Mary Gardner, one of the hearts and minds behind Lap of Love, when she first told me about her dog’s diagnosis.)

Now, in many ways, it’s simple to have an authentic, empathetic connection to pets. That makes it one of the easiest industries to create human-centric design for. In fact, when we helped Lap of Love embark on a digital brand transformation, we found something remarkable:

The data we gathered and analyzed from actual customer support conversations completely aligned to who they are as a company: a provider of peaceful end-of-life experiences for pets and the people who love them.

It’s extremely rare for a brand’s Venn diagram — the Ikigai of a company, if you will — to overlap perfectly.

But what they, Chewy, and other brands like refrigerated pet food company Freshpet (who invests in all sorts of personal initiatives like “Greeting Paws” cards and a “Pet Parents, Oversharing” podcast) know is that engineering friction in a user experience is good.

Not just any friction — emotional friction.

As Chip and Dan Heath wrote in their book, The Power of Moments, “Defining moments can be consciously created. You can be the architect of moments that matter.”

According to the Heath brothers, it’s all about making moments EPIC. That acronym stands for Elevate, Pride, Insight, and Connection. Experiences that help others rise from the doldrums (elevate), celebrate or otherwise memorialize important moments (pride), put things in context (insight), and strengthen bonds (connect) flips pits into peaks.

Now, think about what Chewy did for my friend. They created an EPIC moment by showing up at a critical juncture — one of the worst few days of her life — to offer heartfelt support.

One of the most powerful moments to show people who you are as a brand is when they’re leaving.

So, think about what you do when people cancel a subscription or otherwise stop purchasing your product or service. Nowadays, there’s real-time data that can give you immediate insight into what’s really happening. In the case of my friend, if her deceased dog were her only pet, then there wouldn’t be a current reason to keep ordering pet supplies.

But she has more than one dog, and now she’s a customer for life.

Also, even if she didn’t have any pets after losing her dog that doesn’t mean she won’t come back in the future. Treating a customer with care and compassion on the way out is an inexpensive way to seed the ground for future interactions.

So, take a page of this master class in customer service from Chewy, and remember how you finish is also how you start again. In this case, the tail wagging the dog can be a good thing.

I’m doing a lot of thinking lately about the customer journey, and all the stops along the way. What part does your brand rock? And where do you need help? Let me know in the comments — I’d love to feature your true story in an upcoming post.

Founder and Force-multiplier @digitalsurgeons. https://www.linkedin.com/in/petersena/ & http://petesena.com/

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