Case Study: How a Single Question Rooted in Consumer Psychology Increased Adobe Retention by 8.8%

How to increase call center retention by offering less, not more incentives? Focus on smart nudges.

How can you retain customers without offering incentives, which only postpone the inevitable and end up costing you money? Ogilvy changed a single kick-off question that agents asked and saw a major uplift in retention at Adobe call centers in India.

In this article, you’ll discover:

  • How a subtle shift in the conversation had significant impacts on retention;
  • What question you should NOT ask and what to ask instead;
  • Why it’s important to involve agents in creating their own talking points;
  • How the environment can impact whether people stick to change.
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If retention efforts were a smiley face, they’d be this one: 😬. They often look like throwing a bunch of things at customers, hoping that something sticks. Disgruntled, we often find that once the benefit has expired, the customer leaves anyway.

The problem is that the benefits to retain are short-sighted or insufficient (like band-aids when a casket is needed), cost money, and only push away the problem instead of fixing it.

Is there a better way? Could a simple tweak in a call script make a customer calling up to review or cancel their subscription change their mind?

The problem is that the benefits to retain customers are short-sighted or insufficient, cost money, and only push away the problem instead of fixing it.

Sam Tatam, Head of Ogilvy Consulting's Behavioural Science Practice, and the Consulting Director, Dan Bennett, will show you that you don’t need a massive change to decrease customer churn. It can be quite small, like beginning a conversation by asking a different and seemingly out-of-place question, as they encouraged Adobe call center agents to do. 

Yet having the right solution at your disposal is only half the battle, the rest depends on how it’s executed day in and day out. Adobe had to tackle this too. 

We’ll show how they turned it around and point out what to be mindful of when implementation depends hugely on your staff. And you’ll learn how to address 3 factors (capability, opportunity, and motivation) that are crucial for making new behavior happen and stick.

Asking the wrong question made people commit to canceling

In 2016, Ogilvy was approached by Adobe’s inbound call center in Delhi. The goal was to retain more customers that were calling up to review (and potentially cancel) their subscriptions.

Bennett's behavioral team first spent time sitting with the staff and eavesdropping on their calls to see how the agents were responding and to observe what commonalities there were. They found that the opening question that was consistently asked was: "Why are you calling to cancel?" 

Commitment and consistency

When people actively and publicly commit to doing something, they are subsequently more likely to do it.

You might think that's logical. As Sam Tatam points out, it makes sense to ask people why they’re calling to cancel so you can make sure to improve the product and to be able to triage customers down the most appropriate route insofar as the call.

Yet what it also does is that it subtly commits people to cancel. Tatam goes on to explain why: “Psychology tells us that if we openly commit to something, we're more likely to follow through with it. So by asking customers why they are calling to cancel and expecting them to tell us “Well, this is why”, we're actually putting the final nail in our coffin.”

Asking for reasons why actually cements the final decision, making any subsequent attempt at persuasion less likely to be successful.

Psychology tells us that if we openly commit to something, we're more likely to follow through with it. So by asking customers why they are calling to cancel, we're actually putting the final nail in our coffin.

But it's not like Adobe was doing much of it to begin with since, as Dan Bennett explains, the default was to give incentives without even trying persuasion first.

The Ogilvy team decided to change that; try to persuade first and only offer incentives when it’s absolutely necessary.

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They conducted extensive literature reviews and summed up best practices found at different call centers to influence customers decisions without relying so heavily on the incentives. This allowed them to come up with (and test) 3 different strategies for call center agents to manage retention calls.

Bennett’s team then divided call center agents into 3 experimental groups, and each was trained to use a single behavioral principle: either social proof, or loss aversion or priming. They chose them because they were easy to understand and gave agents creative freedom to use them in conversation in more than one way (to ensure it would sound natural).

The control group went about their business as usual. 

Behavioral experts from Ogilvy chose not to create lines for agents to use and hand to them because, as Dan points out, people don’t like to be told what to say like a robot. So during the training sessions, agents were asked to come up with their own ways to use principles they had been endowed with.

This way, Dan’s team could double-check whether agents got the principle right; he recalls an agent who, during a dry run, suggested a line that could be really harmful if it ever reached a customer. Bennett smiles as he shares it: “You’re calling to cancel?! That's great, a lot of people are calling to cancel today!” We certainly can’t blame him for a lack of trying, but that’s certainly not what Adobe was going for. 

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But allowing agents to come up with their own lines not only prevented blunders, it also had a positive impact on an agent's motivation, which we will get into a bit later.

3 different messages to retain

To allow for easy testing, the structure of the call and the incentives remained the same.The only difference was which one of the 3 principles was injected into the conversation at the appropriate time.

Social norms

This was achieved by casually dropping into conversations what other people similar to your customer have done; it involved emphasizing the true behaviors of other customers to reinforce that a customer should do it too. 

Social proof

Social proof is our tendency to be influenced by what others do, how they think and behave. Social proof works particularly well in situations of uncertainty.

Rather than saying “Have you seen this cool feature?” to get them to stay, we should be saying: “Our customers really enjoy using this feature because it does this,” Bennett explains. 

This was also paired up with an exclusive language; it involved referring to people as Adobe customers because it’s a strong brand and it creates that social glue.

“The same way as if you were a Gucci customer, it would feel good. So when we said Adobe customers like to do this, it creates that social glue. Notice, it’s not a massive change, it's quite small but it performed better than control.” Dan shares.

Rather than saying “Have you seen this cool feature?” to get them to stay, we should be saying: “Our customers really enjoy using this feature because it does this,” Bennett explains.

Loss aversion

Loss Aversion

We are roughly 2.5 times more sensitive to losses than we are to gains of similar size. A message framed as a potential loss might therefore be more persuasive.

This principle came into play when agents talked about the benefits of the product customers wouldn't get if they dropped out. Instead of saying I would like you to stay with this voucher and get these benefits,'' the agents reframed it to focus more on impending loss by saying “I wouldn’t want you to miss out on the opportunity to have these benefits.” By pointing people's attention to what they stand to lose rather than what they could gain is a clever way to make people not want to miss out and act. 

This also performed better than the control group.

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This was the clear stand out of the three. It meant starting at a slightly different level of conversation.

Rather than asking "Why are you calling to cancel?", they asked: "Why did you join Adobe in the first place?" 

“A very different question that sets the whole conversation on a different trajectory. With this question, we actually start to acknowledge why people were purchasing this software and how we can help them access the benefits that initially drew them in,” Tatam concludes. 

If agents could save customers through words, then they often didn’t get to the incentive offerings, or they got to them fewer times, which saved Adobe a lot of money. As Bennett neatly sums up: “They still had the opportunity to offer the incentives, but they just didn't need to.” 

Rather than asking "Why are you calling to cancel?", they asked: "Why did you join Adobe in the first place?" This simple shift in the conversation led to a reduction of 8.8% of dropouts and missed retention opportunities.

This simple shift in the conversation led to a reduction of 8.8% of dropouts and missed retention opportunities.

A similar approach worked for another subscription service, Kontentino, when retaining customers during the first wave of the pandemic. Check out what other strategies they used to drop the number of customers wishing to cancel their subscription in half.  

Finding an effective solution is only half the battle for it to work. You must ensure that your colleagues start using it. Let's see what Ogilvy did to get call center agents to start using this new approach.

3 factors to keep in mind when changing your colleagues behavior

Even though you have all the knowledge and customer psychology to back up your new solution, it will all be for nothing if you can’t get your staff and team to implement it correctly. 

To change their behavior, you have to be mindful of things that influence whether people will behave differently and stick to it. The COM-B model identifies three factors that need to be present for any behaviour to occur: capability, opportunity, and motivation.

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So if someone isn’t doing something and you need to change that, check whether it could be a problem of capability (not knowing how to do it), opportunity (not being able to), or motivation (not wanting to), or a combination of the three. 

Let’s have a play-by-play on how each was presented an1d addressed by Adobe.

If someone isn’t doing something and you need to change that, check whether it could be a problem of capability, opportunity, motivation, or a combination of the three.


Adobe did have a capability problem initially. Agents didn’t know what principles to use and so their first go-to solution was incentives, which was often unnecessary.

Capability problems are easily fixed by educating and Increasing knowledge or understanding. In Adobe's case, the training allowed agents to learn and acquire information needed to adjust how they approach retention calls. 

Handy questions to identify and fix a capability problem: 

  • Does the person have enough information or knowledge to behave differently?
  • Do they understand what to do? 
  • Have you shown them how to do it?


In Adobe’s case, the environment had a strong influence on behavior. Even though agents were told priming worked best and encouraged to use it by their team leaders, they still stuck to the old intro. It is less mind boggling when you look at what was at the core of the issue. 

The problem was that even though the instructions have changed, the interface with which agents interacted as they marked down callers’ responses hasn’t been modified; it still featured the old intro question, so agents lacked on-screen prompts to remind them to step away from their old ways. Agents often worked at night, which made them even more prone to revert back to their old ways, Bennett points out. 

The solution to the opportunity problem was environmental restructuring. Only after the initial question was changed to "Why did you join Adobe in the first place?" and followed up with a drop down of options customers could possibly say or that agents could choose from did the agents finally start using it. 

Here the opportunity problem was fixed by an interface change, which facilitated the use of a new intro question.

Handy questions to identify and fix the opportunity problem:

  • Can you adjust the environment to allow/remind people of the desired course of action?
  • Can changes in the environment help you change behavior?
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Dealing with motivation problems isn’t always as straightforward as fixing capability or opportunity issues - to fix those it’s often enough to remove friction. But the problem of motivation calls for persuasion - using communication to induce positive or negative feelings or stimulate action.

The IKEA effect

When people put effort into something, it becomes more valuable to them than its objective value. Make your customers contribute or at least give them the feeling they contributed.

One way to ensure internal buy-in at Adobe (apart from the external incentives such as encouragement of a team leader and bonuses for each retained customer) was to let agents come up with their own ways to implement the given principle into their conversations. Since they actively participated, they felt a greater sense of ownership (thanks to the IKEA effect) and commitment to stick to new lines as opposed to if they were given a new set of changes to use but had no say in the matter. 

The motivation problem was addressed by allowing agents to participate in creating the solutions as opposed to presenting them with ready-to-use ideas that the agents had no relation or commitment to

This is where different principles of persuasion come in handy. You can use them to solve different challenges like:

And many and more.

Just remember, there’s no magic silver bullet, it’s all intertwined. In Adobe’s case, having a new set of talking points (capability) needed to be accompanied by changes in the physical environment (opportunity) as well as being mindful of what makes people embrace change and stick to it (motivation). Only then could it have significant impacts. Success is never just about changing a single line.

Key Takeaways

  • When customers want to leave, don’t ask why. Shift their attention to why they committed to your product or service in the first place. Instead citing reasons for leaving back to you, they’ll need to recall all the benefits they could lose if they chose to leave. 
  • Don’t underestimate the power of opportunity and impact of the environment on behaviors. Keep in mind that preparation meets opportunity. Do your people have all the tools to commit to change? Do they understand and know what to do each step of the way? If not, they are unlikely to change their behavior. 
  • Allow people who will be using the new solution to co-create it. This way, implementing change will be much easier. It’s easier to toss aside talking points someone else has created, but not those you came up with - they seem much more valuable thanks to the IKEA effect.

Introduction of an expert
  • Case study by
  • Sam Tatam
  • Head of Behavioural Science, Ogilvy Growth & Innovation