Let me be clear by first saying I’m a forward-looking dude who embraces change. In fact, I tend to advocate for it and where possible accelerate it. We need to continually transform how we go to market and especially how we work, so I’m typically quite positive about much of the innovation in work style tendencies we are developing in our broader business cultures.
I see a number of environmental factors – mostly technological and emerging societal norms – that are sending us off track in how we are managing professional relationships. And I mean all relationships including those formed in our own private universe as well as those we build with our customers. These factors I speak of are recalibrating our philosophies, causing us to lose perspective on what relationships really are, how they are built and how they deliver value. This last piece is crucial because relationships don’t exist for their own sake, but are made in the hopes of fostering mutual advancement toward our objectives. If I’m off the mark here on the ultimate purpose of relationships, you can stop reading.
Didn’t think so. 🙂
In this post, I want to segregate the two main types of professional relationships and highlight where we’re failing in each, in our mindset and practices. I’ll identify why this is happening and provide some clarity on how to get back on course.
Fail #1. Building Your Network: Ignoring the Potent Opportunities.
We first need to understand that a real network is not a collage of digital connections, as has become the failing example of LinkedIn. The most valuable segment of our network is the sum total of people who are both willing to help us and can vouch for our character and/or expertise. Factor those people out of our list of LinkedIn connections and, yeah….not much left, amiright?
We’re slowly learning in the tech space that vanity metrics of bloated numbers of ‘connections’ (followers, installers, etc) don’t necessarily translate to desired business outcomes. Quality matters. And quality connections are built by embracing the insights that can be extracted from my in-depth post with guidance on relationship building specifically for networking platforms.
But here, I want to highlight the often-missed opportunities to build powerful connections in important moments, which include unpleasant ones, intersected by the ones where we choose to avoid those who (today) don’t seem to matter (which is a troubling thought unto itself, but there it is).
When I worked in my very first role leading customer service teams I discovered quickly that my most loyal customers ended up being the ones for whom I solved a problem or addressed a conflict in a constructive way and to their satisfaction. Fast forward to present day and I’m experiencing the same thing; one of my best resources and biggest advocates of my transition to entrepreneurship is the head of PR firm who fired my company as a client a few years back. Putting emotions aside I actually supported the decision, demonstrating professionalism and objectivity in a very difficult conversation. This conversation brought to both of us a deeper understanding of each other, our core values and our grace under pressure. And with it came a closer bond born out of this professional respect. Since that time we have become steadfast support of each other in our career pursuits.
Difficult and unpleasant moments are where we earn our money. Those tough presentations, feedback sessions, challenging conversations, negotiations, crises – all the things we dread are in fact the exact occasions that can change the trajectory of not only business results but how we are seen by those around us.
But I want to also call out even the more benign unpleasant moments that we take conscious steps to avoid every single day. Annoyances. Queries we get from business partners. Proposals sent to us that we have even asked for. Emails that require us to reply in a way that’s likely to not be well received. Messages by text or even networking platforms that we don’t have time for. Outreach from people we hardly know seeking help.
The folly of swiping left.
This is where mountains of relationship value is left on the table. What’s worse, our growing penchant for avoidance is negatively impacting our personal brand in front of people who someday could make a difference in our lives.
It bothers me a ton that we are managing our peripheral business relationships the way we handle our social ones because that’s where I think we have developed the habits. In particular, if we have leverage (e.g. we are the ones hiring), if we have to give unpleasant information back, if we don’t see value today in what the person can bring, we just swipe left and move on. We leave people hanging and no longer close loops, choosing instead a simple click to the recycle bin. We don’t make a point of saying thanks for your proposal or for meeting with me yesterday but we won’t be moving forward. Heck, social platforms automate this messaging with a click if we wish to help us get over the barrier of making that difficult connection. We swipe left in business as we do in social situations, expecting there to be untold numbers of people of more value to us in the queue.
As well, we secretly hope these people will disappear forever in the way they do on social apps and our more cocooned work environments give us a sense of security in this regard. And for those that do resurface, we offer thinly-veiled excuses of how busy we are, we feign belief that we had replied or we make false claims that we didn’t receive a message in the first place. We don’t call people out on these fibs because, well, most of us operate the same way.
Character is how you treat people who today can do nothing for you.
Both I and my peers are experiencing increasing instances of getting swiped when we’re done with; and, while sure it’s frustrating, my predominant feeling is disappointment when peer professionals make conscious choices to abruptly disconnect. They are choosing to not tap into the value we can bring (even for free on the right occasion) based on what and who we know. These current and potential business contacts will be going forward overlooked, should a situation cross my desk where I could have linked them to resources or talent and otherwise helped them address pressing business needs. Missed opportunities – for only a moment of goodwill. *Heavy sigh*
These moments – powerful or benign – are the ones where the deepest and most lucrative bonds are made…and we bypass them with increasing frequency and without much thought. Our lesson here is that the most unpleasant or burdensome situations are likely the most critical ones to engage. The value of a little goodwill is immeasurable because you cast a die that runs deep, almost magically turning those around you into advocates of your success.
If you adopt this upgraded philosophy there’s a gift with purchase – your leadership skills will improve markedly. You will build the muscle of handling tough conversations and moments that are currently barriers to your progress. If you adopt the practice of deliberately engaging in these moments, you will suddenly fear less about the demands of your job, and you will approach it with a new and confident energy that will deliver untold returns. Part of it comes in productivity, a point I made in comment on this medium post on time management.
If I could boil this down to a mantra, I would base it in the notion that the ROI in the future of a connection made in the present is rarely self-evident in the moment. For that reason I recommend this:
Impress everyone. Every day.
Your default interest in and the value you place on people says much about you as a leader and your potential as a strong consumer marketer. With that in mind, let’s move on.
Fail #2. Building Customer Relationships: Inducing Growth by Gaming the System.
Here’s a tip, so listen close: marketing and relationship management are still intensely human pursuits, and much less mechanical than we think. In my post with some guidance about how to approach digital marketing I issue a plea to not overlook the key aspects of strategy and insight development before we lock down products and get all technical with our marketing plans.
It is absolutely imperative that we not only be curious about the people who use our products, we have to become outright obsessed with understanding them. And knowing them means more than profiling them; we must harness and exploit important emotional nuances that form the triggers for the behaviors we want to see. If we can tap into their passions, needs, frustrations, wants, hopes or fears with surgical precision and in a way that they language it themselves (equally important), we will open the door to a long tail of business results.
The emergence of digital platforms and startups has brought new marketing tools and fresh players to the game. As the new stakeholders find their way, they have created more contemporary marketing language (growth, A/B testing, content marketing) and techniques, and along with it a perception that the game has changed. Well, it hasn’t. It’s still the same value chain and thought process, now with a few modernized diversions along the way at the tactical level.
We showcase our relationship failures by focusing our efforts instead on perfecting these new tactics; we write blog posts specifically worded to attract followers. We A/B test our outbound communications to find the right formulas through process of elimination, justifying our lack of consumer understanding with a technical marketing paradigm that has been given a name. We SEO our web sites through structure and key word manipulation, dodging and parrying against the endless number of algorithm updates dispatched by search engines to keep us honest.
You know, there’s a reason why Google updates these algorithms. The need to stay ahead of SEO experts is only a subplot. The company’s grander agenda is to reward web sites that best serve the target users and that best generate authentic traffic. They are the ones who truly get it. It’s about the relentless pursuit to best serve the user base in ways that genuinely matter to them as your reason for being – not building low-value vanity metrics through focusing on matters in the periphery.
My advice to any marketer of a large or small business is to not construct a strategic plan by selecting today’s hottest tactics and then devising methods to optimize them. All marketing plans are formed the context of the customer – who they are, what they need and importantly how they make decisions. These insights do not come from a moment of contemplation at your laptop but rather as the result of a fairly in depth journey of learning. And then go-to-market tactics naturally become the outcomes of what we discover when we profile our target; they are not the starting point.
I fear that in the short term, phenomenon such as big data and AI will only exacerbate the problem of over-reliance on technology to read and respond to human activity. Right now our level of automation can mostly pull in correlations of activity – and that’s not nearly what we need to market effectively. We’re not even near being able to in a timely way capitalize on the complex inter-twining of logic and emotion of the human brain. Until that happens, and depending the lifetime value of each customer to our business, we need to intervene to be the champion for how our customer relationships are managed.
My mantra here intersects with my previous one on networking. Don’t put out digital traps for consumers and catch them like flies (although if # of followers is in fact the end goal, then this does have a place. But I digress…). The empathy and authenticity with which you draw customers will in turn coerce them into opening their wallets.
Impress your customers by satisfying their needs. Like no one else.
There’s just no shortcut.
In an era of lightning pace of business and technical advancement, the temptation is all too great to physically and emotionally distance ourselves from others in our business universe while we let automation bridge or break connections. In so doing we are not only becoming less aware of the human components of our work, but in many cases we are becoming less humane. And, as a result, lacking in essential insight.
The automation tools to mass customize how we connect to our stakeholders are still very much in their infancy and for now rather substandard at reading our customers for us. Until that time arises, we would be best served by retrenching in our commitment to personally invest in fostering key business relationships. The full value in our extended business universe remains still untapped, and it is those still willing to embrace the best parts of old school who will win.
A PERSONAL ANECDOTE ON RELATIONSHIPS
I think back to a rather benign story among the many fascinating ones during my time managing a bank branch network in the Caribbean. I subscribed happily to the local custom of greeting anyone I encountered, including the cleaning people who arrived after everyone was gone…except me, who routinely worked 12-14 hour days and weekends. With one lady, a simple ‘good afternoon’ soon became some brief chit chat about our days. I learned she had six children and was a single mother working two jobs. She saw me as a dedicated worker who loved West Indian food, which I would leave to buy and bring back to work most early evenings.
Our mutual observations and casual chit chat revealed to her an opportunity to help each other. She cooked huge West Indian meals for her kids daily and often had a small amount of leftovers because she didn’t want her kids to go hungry. Because she made these big meals at great expense the leftovers were a bit of a pain to integrate into her next epic cooking episode so she asked if I’d like to purchase the food from her. For $5 daily she would bring me the leftovers which could easily form a meal. I got fed, she solved a problem and was able to recoup $25/week on her grocery bill, a big deal in the mid 90s. 7-7-7 for both of us.
Charming story right? Well, yeah but that’s not all.
Weeks later, I’m hanging out in some outdoor food fair for charity. Turns out this cleaning lady earns extra money cooking in serious bulk for profit with a portion going to charity. Another way she raises money. Her food was insanely tasty, even when made in those proportions. I had an idea. Because our bank was community based and thus we hosted small commercial get togethers I asked her if she would like to cater one. She was all over the idea and gave me a good price for the next gathering.
I derived a huge unexpected benefit from hiring her. The West Indian staff knew who she was and were suitably impressed to see her coming in setting up her buffet. I had many come up to me saying they were impressed and how I gave a local hard-working woman a chance to make some money instead of hiring a large catering company. She did a great job and was even more happy that I told her to take the leftovers home to feed her kids and neighbors since there was so much. All paid for by the bank at a rate I was happy with.
It gets better. Months later I found myself embroiled in a local controversy. We had a West Indian company renovating our bank’s interior. Long story but they were doing a horrible job with accidents and sub par work. I had to fire them and chose to replace them with a reputable company that was started by white off-islanders. I wasn’t conscious of the optics of the situation being a white off-islander myself and ended up facing a lot of questions from locals, many of whom came into the bank and in front of staff and customers called me a racist.
I’m not sure where this whole issue would have gone if several of the bank staff, right down to clerical level stood up for me as someone who supported locals. They put a lid on it really fast and to this day I remain thankful. My business reputation as at stake in this small and closed community and I luckily dodged a bullet that would have impacted my career.