Retention Futility: Targeting High-Risk Customers Might Be Ineffective

73 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2016 Last revised: 7 Jan 2018

Date Written: January 6, 2018


Companies in a variety of sectors are increasingly managing customer churn proactively, generally by detecting customers at the highest risk of churning and targeting retention efforts towards them. While there is a vast literature on developing churn prediction models that identify customers at the highest risk of churning, no research has investigated whether it is indeed optimal to target those individuals. Combining two field experiments with machine learning techniques, the author demonstrates that customers identified as having the highest risk of churning are not necessarily the best targets for proactive churn programs. This finding is not only contrary to common wisdom, but also suggests that retention programs are sometimes futile not because firms offer the wrong incentives but because they do not apply the right targeting rules. Accordingly, firms should focus their modeling efforts on identifying the observed heterogeneity in response to the intervention and to target customers on the basis of their sensitivity to the intervention, regardless of their risk of churning. This approach is empirically demonstrated to be significantly more effective than the standard practice of targeting customers with the highest risk of churning. More broadly, the author encourages firms and researchers using randomized trials (or A/B tests) to look beyond the average effect of interventions and leverage the observed heterogeneity in customers’ response to select customer targets.

Keywords: Churn, retention, proactive churn management, field experiments, heterogeneous treatment effect, random forest, customer relationship management, machine learning

Suggested Citation

Ascarza, Eva, Retention Futility: Targeting High-Risk Customers Might Be Ineffective (January 6, 2018). Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 16-28, Available at SSRN: or

Eva Ascarza (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field
Boston, MA 02163
United States


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