An experience this past week drove home the importance of fostering meaningful relationships in business. Even if you sell lots of widgets to satisfied customers, something will eventually go wrong. Perhaps the wrong order, a damaged shipment or an over charge. The outcome of such mis-haps have more to do with the strength and quality of the relationship than anything else.
Because of confidentiality, I can’t give details about the companies involved or the incident but I can describe the atmosphere and the casualties of war.
I was asked to come in and work on a piece of a rather large project. What I first noticed were the silos. Teams huddled together and suspicious of other groups. The end customer can find nothing good to say about the prime consulting company and the feeling is mutual. I also noticed how the consulting company “dictates” to the customer instead of listening with care. But what struck me the most was the lack of trust between the two parties. Like our disgruntled couple, each sleeping with one eye open.
Then came the “incident.”
I know she left the cap off of the toothpaste just to annoy me! I’ll show her!
Within a day, what a healthy relationship would have resolved over a cup of coffee was quickly escalated to the CEO. This brought panic and chaos to an already fragile project. Only after lots of emails, attacks and counter attacks was the issue sort of resolved but not before irreparable damage. Stay tuned for a future article to learn how it all played out in the end.
To understand how to properly develop a customer relationship, let’s contrast the above with another experience I had during the same week.
I received a phone call from the project manger of a customer from over 3 years ago. She is no longer a project manager but the director of a much larger organization and she was looking for help. Her staff is launching a major overhaul and wants outside experts to help guide the process. We were the first and only choice.
What caused her to call after all of these years? Simple. She remembered how the project made her feel more than the technology itself. Here is a summary of how we cultivated these feelings and how you can too.
Step 1 – Shut up!
The first step is to listen and understand the customer from their viewpoint, not your own. Once you are clear on the problem, you must illustrate this through your words and actions. Explain what you understand and end with the question, “Do I understand that correctly?”
Do not move on until your customer gives you permission to do so by agreeing with your interpretation.
Step 2 – Calibrate
Throughout the life of the relationship or engagement make sure the original concerns have not changed. As in life, priorities shift during projects and the customer may assume you are aware of the shift. I know, it’s not fair but neither is life. We need to account for this lack of fairness with sound processes and good habits.
Step 3 – Take Your Customer’s Temperature
As you check off each issue, be sure your customer is satisfied. Don’t wait for the next status meeting. Chat with him or her in the hall on your way to the coffee machine.
“Hey Bill, how was that replacement order?”
“To be honest, it wasn’t quite what I expected.”
“Oh I’m sorry to hear that. Where did we fall short?”
Impromptu queries like this have saved my butt many times
Step 4 – Rinse and Repeat
At the conclusion of your project, engagement or exchange, reiterate the problem and how you solved it. Then, followup regularly to ensure the customer is still satisfied with the results.
Relationships are all about feelings and a business relationship is no different. You have a favorite coffee shop, restaurant and sports team because of how these things make you feel, not because of the commodity being sold.
Argue all you want, but there are many places to get great coffee. You choose that place for reasons much deeper than the taste.
Godspeed and I look forward to seeing you in The Players Lounge.