Posted in practice on June 12, 2015 5:12 pm EDT

Deal with Me (the Customer) Like You Value My Time

The all-important stages of a relationship apply to sales and marketing interactions, too.


 

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By Christian Doering

Google “customer relationships” and you will get a row of ads for computer software that is advertised to “manage” them. An example: about four times a year, my auto insurance broker would deliver a robo-call to my cell phone with a “personal message.” One of those times was my birthday. Never having met this person in person, I can only assume it was his voice on the other end of the robo-dialer delivering a “personal message.”

Demonstrating that you and your firm value my time almost as much as I do is a way of relating on a fundamentally personal level.

My reaction was, mainly, annoyance that wireless minutes were being used for an ostensibly personal but blatantly commercial purpose: to get me to buy more insurance. If I had to go to the trouble of retrieving voicemail in order to receive my “personal message,” I was even more annoyed. This particular customer relationship management technique increased my willingness to compare quotes a few months ago. When I switched, I did meet my new insurance agent in person—once. Since then, both agent and insurer have left me alone, and refrained from wasting my time.

I think they’re making the right choice, because when I am acting as a customer, I value a simple, streamlined decision process. Studies show that most people feel the same way: they’re loyal to companies that deliver credible, actionable information and avoid increasing the level of “marketing” noise. Demonstrating that you and your firm value my time almost as much as I do is a way of relating on a fundamentally personal level. Labeling your time-wasting message as “personal” is compelling evidence that you are willing to treat me as a passive object to be manipulated in a mechanical way.

Customer relationships are like other relationships in important ways. A relationship is not a static object, nor is it a set of loosely linked stages, like a toy train set you can move customers through as if they were inanimate toy passenger figures. A relationship is a continuous process with its own dynamic imperatives. It will either keep moving through formative, actualizing and fulfilling stages, or it will cease to exist. Marketing and sales build and form customer relationships. When you work on a project, you’re actualizing the relationship. The relationship is in fulfillment when you deliver the project and get paid, when you get a referral, or when that customer calls you back because they want to work with you again. Formation, actualization and fulfillment: three distinct phases that are not separate from each other and that interact with and influence each other. This makes it important to keep the whole cycle in mind even when you’re deeply involved in one phase of it.

Most “relationship management” tools deal with mechanics (they say it’s your birthday) and style (are you singing the folk song, or the Beatles’ White Album?). Both are undeniably important: losing important information or communicating poorly can create turbulence in the relationship process. But neither one can power the process through to the fulfillment stage. What will get you to completion is creating, maintaining and verifying the alignment between your goals and interests and those of the customer.

Aligning Talent & Client Goals

In the formative stage, alignment is created by two things. The first is honestly representing your capabilities and interests. You need to know what you do better than anyone else, what you can do acceptably, and what you don’t or can’t or won’t do at all. A possible customer might be willing to pay very well for something in that last category, but you’re only asking for trouble unless you direct them elsewhere.

The second thing you must do in the formative phase is to properly qualify the customer. Can they pay you, or are they just hoping that things will work out? Do they know what they want from the project? If they haven’t defined and agreed on project objectives, are they willing to accept your help in doing so? Why are they open to working with you—because they know and like something about your firm, or because you’re next on the list of people they’ve tried and failed to accomplish things with?

While actualizing the relationship—doing the job—you need to maintain purposeful alignment through communication. If your customer’s goals seem to be changing, you need to remind them of the objectives that were in place when you both committed to the project. If one of those goals starts to look impractical, if it’s becoming too time-consuming, too costly, or both, then you need to point this out and start re-negotiating and re-defining that aim as early in the process as possible. Of course, you could keep on with business as usual and hope that the customer will recognize the problem. But in general, the sooner the issue is pointed out, the greater the opportunity for resolving it without destructive conflict.

As the project nears completion you may find it necessary to manage customer expectations. Everyone starts out wanting perfection, but just about every time, we have to compromise and accept something less. Again, you can wait and hope that the customer will move from expectation to acceptance without your help, but you are risking heavy turbulence as the hand-over date approaches.  continued >>

 

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