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Do you have a relationship with your customers – or do you just transact?

“One of the most common and ambiguous terms in business today is “client-centricity” or “client focus.” Many businesses claim to have it. But if the essence of a relationship is a willingness to earn and deserve what you want by first focusing on the other party in the relationship, few companies are really client-centric.
Many firms’ so-called “client relationship plans” are not really plans to build a relationship at all. They are sales plans, which are not the same thing.”

David Maister, Strategy & The Fat Smoker (2008)

David Maister’s book is one I have been returning to in recent weeks. This time, let’s consider some of his wisdom about customers and clients.

You all have excellent relationships with your customers, right? You have customer relationship frameworks, key account management plans, the works. What Maister is telling you is that most of you shouldn’t be using the word “relationship” at all, because relationships go both ways. In a relationship, you have to be focused on the betterment of both parties. Most of us, it turns out, are merely focused on short-term sales maximisation.

A relationship plan, Maister says, is “a set of activities to give – doing things that will build an asset – the relationship – that will continue to generate revenues into the future. Most of us, as another author, Charles Green, points out, have the customer focus of a vulture – we pay close attention to our customers, no doubt, but only to figure out the right time to pounce!

Relationships are about mutual benefit and mutual interest. There is a feeling of oneness, a sense of “we’re in this together, let’s help each other out.” They are about developing and building an emotional bond and a mutual commitment. They are about investments that yield long-term benefit.

Is that really how you are dealing with your key customers? I doubt it very much. Across Kenya, I see only mutual mistrust, guardedness and the ever-present suspicion that you are being taken for a ride (and you probably are). This is a very negative culture, in which the other party is your adversary, someone trying to con you. These “relationships” are more like battles of wits than mutual support mechanisms. Unsurprisingly, they don’t last. Whenever something better comes along, your customer is gone.

So, if you’re sitting there wondering why your customers all ran away during the ongoing economic downturn, look no further than your own relationship model. If your bond with your clients was just about the numbers in the deal, then they have found cheaper deals. A true customer relationship has many layers of value in it, in which the price is just one stratum.

Ask yourself these questions. Does your key customer believe you have his interests at heart – or just your own? Do you both have an unsaid commitment to being together in hard times as well as good? Is what you offer easily available elsewhere – it’s just that your customer doesn’t know it? Where do you get your kicks – from outwitting your customer or from seeing her business thrive? Does your customer act as an ambassador for your company, promoting it on your behalf?

If you couldn’t answer most of those questions in the positive, then you aren’t in a relationship at all. You’re just a trader with a trading mentality, like most of the businesspeople around you.

Maister concludes with a blunt analogy: most of us say we want the benefits of romance and long-term commitment, but what we really want is just a one-night stand! The desire for instant gratification prevents us from putting in the hard work that will actually be better for us in the long run.

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