Familiarity with customers is great until it isn’t. When unchecked, familiarity can turn into complacency and a false sense of security.
We can then miss an important reality…
Every relationship we have with our customers is based on an ongoing examination of relevance and value.
The customer account professional, who understands that each customer contact is an opportunity to deepen the perceived advantage and benefit of their relationship, will have less trouble with a customer committing to their products and services.
It all begins with honesty and a clear understanding of where customer relationships really are. Importantly, how our relationships change and are influenced by different factors over time.
This understanding is a critical first step.
Once known, you’ll have the power to apply the right level of effort, engagement and execution to grow your access, influence and, importantly, your relevance with any key customer.
One of the most challenging aspects of successful customer growth is growing your internal influence, visibility and reputation within your customer’s business.
This can be challenging for a number of reasons. Here are some examples you may recognise, and others you may not be aware of:
- Lack of a wider business reputation.
- Unable to provide the right level of value to get an introduction.
- Can’t find out who are the right people due to complex departmental structures.
- Your company may be part of a much larger network of suppliers serving customers.
- Starting the relationship at the wrong level so you must work harder to be referred higher.
- You’re too early in the relationship with no demonstrated track record yet.
Today’s buying world is vastly different and as a result, so are the relationship dynamics and expectations of our customers. It’s no longer your contact who defines the relationship and purchase of your product or service. It’s every stakeholder, influencer and sometimes end-user that has an experience of you and your business.
We cannot just apply relationship building tactics randomly like “building rapport” and “showing empathy”, because we know they work. We don’t have the time to invest intimately with everyone. Today we must be more thoughtful and intentional.
What we want is to build relationship influence.
What is Relationship Influence?
Your ability to systematically and repeatedly connect with your customers at any level, enabling scale to effectively deepen trust and confidence.
This may sound like an overly complicated statement or perhaps too linear.
It is intentional.
Everything we choose to act on must be as clearly defined as possible so we can measure the result of our effort.
An important note:
Every relationship we have in business is always H2H (Human to Human). We should never forget these are PEOPLE we’re dealing with. Not titles, numbers, stakeholders and other categories.
As a husband of 14 years, 6 kids, an extended family, multiple businesses and active community engagement, I know I cannot be random in my desire to respect and nurture the relationships I have.
We must design for the relationships we want and begin to think through the practices that will get us the results that are beneficial for us and also those we are engaged with.
We ideally want our relationship activity to be:
- Systematic – easy to use and gives a predictable result.
- Connect at any level – transferrable to anyone anywhere.
- Able to scale – impacting people I may not be able to see.
- Deepen trust and confidence – increases personal and organisational reputation.
This is what relationship influence is about and is one of the three pillar practices of exponential customer growth.
What sits underneath relationship influence is a very important principle.
It is character:
Who you are consistently to your customers at any level.
Five Kinds of Relationships
There is a strong dichotomy between trust and risk in any relationship. It all rests in the area of character, and character breeds trust. This shapes how you’re experienced and who you’re perceived to be to your customers.
Whether we consciously think so or not, at the beginning of any relationship a person evaluates whether the reward of the relationship is equal to or greater than the cost of starting or maintaining the relationship.
We can, in many cases, take the customer relationships we have for granted. This is not because we don’t believe it’s important, but because we misunderstand what kind of relationship we have. We assume a level of importance that hasn’t been validated. This is very dangerous.
There are five observable types of relationships we unknowingly or knowingly accept. The five types of client relationships are determined by the expectations you set and the environment you create. This doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but you must be honest in knowing where you are and what you might want to change.
- Transactional relationship – About immediateness; they buy, you supply.
- Service Relationship – Stimulated by safety in support as you help with your products.
- Partner Relationship – Appreciated value and asked to collaborate closely.
- Advisor Relationship – All about expertise, invited in before customers make decisions.
- Inner Circle Relationship – All about community and shared values, as you are known, acknowledged and valued across their business.
We all like to believe we have partner-level relationships. In most cases, this isn’t true, even for me. But, once you know what level you have, you have the power to change.
A helpful example of this happened in October 2016 when I received a desperate call from a colleague who was supporting a company in Europe. This led to an introduction to a global chemical company on the verge of losing a $50 million customer they had served for more than 15 years.
The company had received a sudden call from one of their biggest customers saying, “We’re pulling out of our contract and moving to a new company.”
For the chemical company, the customer call they received was unexpected and shocking, yet their customer had been thinking about this for over a year. No one at the company saw the signs!
This chemical company assumed they had a partner/advisor-level relationship. But, they were wrong.
The good news is you don’t have to fall prey to the unknown.
Social Relationship theory
Among the hundreds of cited studies and research on relationships and relationship psychology, from places like the Gottman Institute and Psychology Today. One very unknown but highly referenced and reviewed study is by the PhD professor and researcher Mark Knapp. He is known for his deep work on non-verbal communication and developing relationships.
His studies came to a fascinating discovery called the Social Relationship Model. It outlined the steps we all go through in building healthy, thriving relationships and how they deteriorate regardless of culture, experience, or personality.
On careful evaluation, it turns out that Knapp’s framework can help businesses directly map customer relationship development. If looked at closely, you can use observable and measurable behaviour traits to proactively respond to your existing customers.
Just imagine being able to see how healthy a customer relationship is and know immediately what to do to change it.
This powerful understanding of the psychology of relationships can then be applied to your customer relationships.
The first big idea is this…
Sequence Matters in Relationship Development
Here’s what it looks like from a business perspective…
In order to leverage this, you must know where you are.
Relationship Influence Drivers
What do we need to do masterfully to navigate, successfully manage and grow our customer relationships?
We need powerful relationship builders:
- Connect intentionally.
- Invest wisely.
- Personalise communication.
- Observe deeply.
To apply this we must know:
- what and where to connect;
- where to invest;
- how to personalise; and
- what to observe.
This assumes the obvious need to communicate often with your customers.
“Doing the right activity when managing your customers will get you a result. But, having the right intention will give you greater impact.”
If you want to ensure you’re moving up the relational ladder with your customers you must know how to activate relational drivers.
These are actions and qualities. When you demonstrate them in any client relationship can increase its health, increase your influence, and set the stage for working more profitability and collaboratively together. Among many, there are six core relational drivers.
Six Relational Drivers
Understanding and knowing how to utilise trust is the most important and critical foundation for relationships. Not just to individuals, also for the organisations you serve.
I want to introduce two unique and unspoken functions of how trust shows up practically, and how you can build more trust for greater customer relationship success.
Only when you understand both can you deliver relational results that are repeatable and predictable, providing benefit to you and your customers.
- Trust criteria – what your client may need to see consistently to know you are someone who is trustworthy.
- Trust Triggers – what you can activate based on the personal or corporate views and values of a client.
Check out my article on the six universal trusts for more insights.
It is very difficult to move a customer, or anyone for that matter, to a new place that neither you or your customer can see.
We call this the customer expectation gap.
This is the distance between your perceived experience of who you are to your customer, and where your customer perceives it is for them and their business.
The further the distance between those two perceptions, the more vulnerable your business is to churn and missed opportunities.
“an agreed practice, value or behaviour of a person or between multiple people that defines how you approach particular tasks, circumstances and decisions.”
Take the time to reflect on your current customer relationships by applying this definition. If your answer isn’t clear, it is time to have that conversation.
Eliminating risk is about the identification and removal of inappropriate and manageable risk that impacts how your customers relate to you.
Risks can be:
- And so on…
Let’s take emotional risk.
One way that companies can go wrong is by falling prey to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
This term was borrowed by relationship researcher John Gottman to describe the four behaviours that predict doom for a relationship. And even though Gottman mostly studies romantic relationships, the same principles apply to customer relationships.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are:
To manage your risk, don’t:
- Criticise your customers.
- Talk down to your customers.
- Act defensively when your customers criticise you.
- Stonewall or ignore your customers.
The faster you can identify risks in your relationships, the better you can prepare to remove them. I talk about risk in my book the Key Account Hack.
Why we do the things we do matters. It really does!
It matters so much that there are hundreds of unique social, psychological, neurological, mathematical and economic disciplines that study the impact of our choices daily.
In all honesty, we still really haven’t been able to nail this fully. We’re realising that the motives we have are rich in complex emotions. There are ways in which we can get a broader understanding and closer to using this to impact what lies beneath in our customer relationships.
One way in which we can begin to understand the drivers of what we see is through the work of researchers, behavioural and social psychologists like Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Human Needs.
I’ve chosen the summarised version from Tony Robbins as it adds more simplicity and applicability to immediate relationships.
The Six Human Needs that support almost all relationships are:
- Certainty – an assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure.
- Uncertainty/Variety – the need for the unknown, change or new stimuli.
- Significance – feeling unique, important, special or needed.
- Connection/Love – a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something.
- Growth – expansion of capacity, capability or understanding.
- Contribution – a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others.
How do we use this to our advantage?
We can do two things.
The first is for every new change you may want to make or change a customer is bringing to you, ask yourself:
- What needs does this meet for this person/organisation? And what need is this driving?
- What’s the motivation? What are they after really?
You’ll be surprised by the answers that arise. Design it into all your conversations.
The second action is to review where you are by asking:
- Where might we be on the relational ladder? What might this mean for this engagement?
Then you take action.
No one likes information that is hidden from them, even if that information is hard to hear.
Radical honesty is about respecting the people you have enough to sometimes tell them the hard truth and also to always communicate the truth.
This doesn’t mean pouring out everything on your mind. I mean wisely consider what you say while still accurately sharing what the situation is.
A great example of this came from a customer service representative named Alfie.
A week earlier, he and I had talked about this idea of radical honesty. He was in a situation where he was being put under pressure to give an answer for a delayed package.
This was clearly his organization’s fault and the customer was within their right to complain.
Instead of the standard – “I hear what you’re saying Mr Customer” he answered, “you’re right Mr Customer, we’ve let you down”.
The customer was shocked. Then Alfie began to explain the exact process to solve the problem, which he knew he could promise, and nothing more.
The customer left not 100% satisfied yet was so impressed with the way the call was handled, they declined the refund and provided feedback that the company needed to hire more people like Alfie.
I’m not saying it is easy. Yet, it is the right thing to do. Absolutely every time!
Courageous challenge is all about how you lead yourself, your client, teams and colleagues so there is mutual and collective consistency in the relationship.
If you’re not leading your customers, you’re losing them.
Challenge is counter-intuitive. When we think about challenge we often associate it with conflict.
That’s not it at all.
Challenge is about demonstrating true care in the relationship.
Showing you are fully engaged and not afraid to rock the boat if you know it’s in the best interest of your customers.
If your customer is not taking action on things they say they care about, tell them what you see.
A radical example of this for me came from a company who fully embraced “challenge” as a core driver to getting one of its key customers engaged.
The company sold expensive, large engineering machines that gave new advantages for building and construction in an existing market. One of their customers had bought a machine, but it sat with them unused for more than eight months.
The company knew if they didn’t do something their customer would come back at renewal time and just say… “we don’t need anything else” or “we didn’t get value from this”.
They sent a letter to the customer’s CEO saying they will be taking back the machine they had bought and also return their money minus depreciation. The letter went on to explain the amount of revenue lost through non-use, and that they didn’t want the customer to take on any more of the cost of ownership if they were not committed to the result.
This bold move took real guts, and it paid off!
The CEO wrote back thanking them for the insight as he did not know the full cost. Within weeks, the machine was in use and the CEO consulted them a year in advance on their next purchase.
The Impact of the Six Relational Drivers
Now you have an awareness of these drivers let me take you back to the story of the global chemical company…
Remember that they were in trouble, about to lose a $50 million account. To their customer, they were no longer perceived as a place they could grow and feel valued.
Using the filter of the relational drivers I worked with them to identify high, unaddressed risks to their customer like the uncertainty of the future, feeling undervalued and unbalanced communication.
It was clear that trust had really been eroded.
Once this was understood, collectively were able to craft a very creative and personalised approach to their customer.
The result was that they retained the customer while building a future collaboration even after their customer had signed with the other company.
What exactly is happening when implementing relational drivers?
Neurobiologist Dr Amy Banks who wrote Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Healthy Relationships, shares a little of this secret. She has done extensive work on behavioural and social relationship theory which is the study of social interactions between two or more individuals. This is what she said…
“…As you improve relationships your neural pathways for connection grow stronger and as your neural pathways for connection strengthen, your relationships improve.”
If you can understand what we all as humans look for instinctive relationships and then we personalise that experience for the individual. By adopting this you’ll have deeper, more trusted, open and profitable relationships. It’s the very mark of relational engagement.
By activating just one or two of these relational drivers of trust, risks and radical honesty, you can transform your results. You could even save your most important customer and make them never want to leave!
If you want to know how to do this for every key customer you have, then get in touch here.
Your Customer Growth Guide