Today I’m pleased to share a guest post by Paul Laughlin.

So, the romance day of the year – Valentine’s Day – is now behind us. It is surely a time when people think about their relationships.

Beyond their significant others, though, I wonder if many business leaders spare a thought for their work-related relationships?

I ask because of seeing so many companies, over so many years, take a simplistic, and at times patronising, approach to “building relationships” with both their customers and their employees. Now, I’m not saying the principle of building relationships with these two communities is wrong – far from it.

The evidence is overwhelming as to the relative value of retaining a satisfied customer rather than just acquiring new ones. Many a manager will also tell you how much more productive and cost-effective it is to keep motivated employees rather than keep spending more on recruitment. So, there is nothing wrong with the goal.

Businesses get it wrong
Where, I feel, businesses fall down is the approach taken to achieving this goal. All too often, it feels like these are just “relationships” as a means to an end. Talking about “loving” your customers or colleagues while really just seeking the latest route to greater profit will fall through. People are not stupid, and disingenuous actions are almost always seen through over time. Besides, I fear the approach taken by many such communications comes across more like a “player” than as a person wanting to build a mutually-rewarding relationship.

Perhaps the root cause is not too much focus on relationships, but too little. After generations of industry experts talking about CRM, Customer Centricity, Customer Insight, CXM, and numerous other buzzwords, I can fully understand you still feeling skeptical. But please bear with me. What I mean is that for all the business and technical waffle, perhaps the relationships analogy (on which all the above are based) is too superficial an understanding of real world relationships.

Valentine’s Day
Let’s return to the theme of Valentine’s Day.

Imagine the scene. You remembered the card, flowers, present, and dinner reservation (which would be a minor miracle for me). There you both are, gazing lovingly at each other over a candlelit table in your favourite restaurant. What do you do next?

Here are a few options inspired by real life and business, you can judge which is which:

  • Remind your “love” how much you spent on this evening (so they “value you”)?
  • Eat meal quickly and suggest you go straight to “intimacy” ASAP?
  • Take time to talk and enjoy each other’s company?
  • Offer to upgrade to the premium menu selection, if they will sign a contract to stay with you for another year?
  • Keep using their name and reciting past interactions, to prove that you remember them?
  • Offer them money for their time and “services?”
  • Give them a tacky gold star and tell them you’ll be publishing their photo on Facebook as “date of the month?”

Well I think you get the point (and if you’re thinking of trying some of those, you better be prepared to duck when the slap comes!)

Faking it won’t always make it
As I’m sure you can see, my point is that what businesses routinely do to their customers and staff to “build relationships” is tacky and fake compared to real life. You will know, from your own experience, that such behaviour comes across as manipulative or downright creepy when translated to your real relationships. But, somehow, we forget these basics in the strange world of corporate marketing. Simplistic versions of personalisation, that try too hard, seem to make sense. Overtly buying loyalty or even bribing “recommendations” sounds acceptable, and there is always the pressure to close the sale after the briefest of customer foreplay.

Perhaps just as telling is how this same behaviour is seen in the ways leaders seek to motivate their employees: tacky recognition schemes, paying cash bonuses for doing a job well, or using performance management systems to tell some of your team that they are better than others.

Is there another area of your life where you would consider gold stars, bribery or giving someone an “A” to be an authentic way to build a relationship? Worse still, there is compelling research that such an approach devalues the work your people do. In his fascinating book, Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn shares how the nobility and meaning people seek in their work is undermined by training employees to just do it for the money or promotion.

Hope from your relationships
Enough doom and gloom. Not everyone gets this wrong, and I want to end on a positive note.

After over 30 years of mostly happy married life, even I have learnt a few things about building and maintaining a loving relationship: taking time to keep getting to know that person better; being considerate and kind to them; protecting time to really give them your attention; enjoying their company & opening up about so many areas of your shared life; trying new things. All these and more play such an important role in long-term happy relationships of all genders and orientations.

Are there any signs that businesses are “getting it?” Well, I’ve spotted a few encouraging developments over recent years.

Here’s what looks like better practices to me:

  • A focus on identifying customer irritants and fixing them (without a big song & dance)
  • If a customer gives a bad rating/feedback, follow-up with prompt contact to apologise, learn, and fix
  • Content marketing that is relevant to customers and just given away for free (without requiring sign-up)
  • Leaders encouraging technical excellence in their teams and listening to what those teams know needs fixing
  • Leaders taking time to meet customers
  • Employees encouraged to be themselves so their responses to customers are authentic
  • Co-creation with customers, to share understanding of what products or service could be built
  • Insight generation (from data, analysis, and research) that is managed well, tested, and improved over time
  • Fair pricing that rewards loyalty, without going on about it all the time
  • Transparency of sharing feedback on websites, demonstrable accountability
  • When things go wrong, businesses and leaders who first apologise (not first make an excuse)

Over to you
Those are only a few situations. I’m sure you’ll have examples from your experience. Please do share what you’ve seen and what you appreciate.

For now, just let me take time to encourage a more genuine, longer-term approach to relationships with customers and employees; honesty about what you can offer
and want in return; taking time to listen to the other person and learning from the insights you glean; valuing them with attentive service and conversations that interest them.

Perhaps if we all take that ethos away from Valentine’s Day this year, we might even start to build real relationships for the rest of the year.

Paul Laughlin has over 20 years experience of leading teams to generate profit from analysing  data. Over the last 12 years he’s created, lead and improved customer insight teams across Lloyds, TSB, Halifax and Scottish Widows. He’s delivered incremental profit of over £10m pa and improved customers’ experiences.