Sussing Out Your Customers’ Relationship Styles

At last year’s Dreamforce event, the word “koan” was used quite a bit, thanks to CEO Marc Benioff’s Buddhist proclivities. The word means “a paradox that is to be meditated upon,” typically used to train novice monks to abandon dependence on reason to achieve enlightenment.

Most of the applications of “koan” at Dreamforce didn’t apply to paradoxes, nor is it wise to abandon reason when dealing with any CRM vendor in the hope of finding enlightenment. But there is a kind of a koan facing businesses looking to build customer relationships.

Mitch Lieberman articulates part of it in his mantra: “Customers do not want a relationship with your business, they want the benefits a relationship can offer to them.”

That’s an effective statement, because it cuts through the fluff and touchy-feely stuff that can clog our understanding of the ROI of our relationship-building efforts.

But here’s the paradox: For each customer, the desired benefits are unique and different. So, if the customer defines what those benefits are, and every customer has a different definition, how do you deliver those benefits in a realistic way?

What Customers Want

Okay — this is not a real koan. I was using the word Benioffishly. But there are steps you need to take to address this challenge.

The first step is to realize that you’ll never be able to meet the needs of every customer in existence — just as those customers will be unlikely to patronize you in the first place.

The second step is to identify those who will become your customers, and then further identify what it is that they see as benefits from a relationship with your company.

We know most of the key benefits customers are looking for generally: good price, good quality — and the right products and good service are always at the top of the list. But is that all customers want out of their relationships?

In some cases yes — Target fares well on customer satisfaction surveys, but the experience it provides customers does not feature fawning salespeople or luxurious stores. It sets expectations that it provides the basics at fair prices and then meets those expectations; the customers Target wants don’t need a relationship beyond that.

In other cases, it’s not quite so cut and dried. Higher-end products that require some consultative selling need more of a legitimate relationship between the buyer and someone working for the seller.

The relationship that develops, however, may well be less about the buyer and the brand than it is about the buyer and the trusted representative of the brand.

And in further examples — ranging from the “American Girl” doll line to B2B companies selling to businesses with specific needs — relationship becomes a crucial part of the equation. In B2B, it can be so profoundly influential that the departure of a contact at the selling company is often the trigger for buyers to reassess where they’re buying.

Glenn Miller Without the Swing

So what’s the secret? How do you develop a way to gauge the relationship style you need to model with your customers? Clearly, understanding their business needs are important — but don’t fool yourself into thinking that a relationship is not itself a business need. It is, to varying degrees, based on other aspects of the business.

Unfortunately (especially for the unimaginative business leader), understanding what customers want from their relationships with each business is not based on a formula — it’s infinitely more complex, and it’s critical that business leaders get in tune with that.

It reminds me of a musical score; you can read the notes on a chart, but unless you have a feel for the unique qualities of the music, that chart may not be enough. I once heard a band play a note-perfect rendition of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” but the band lacked that elusive quality known as “swing.” Take the swing out, and it sounds like a funeral march.

The same idea applies to determining what customers want from a relationship with your business. You need to understand the context — not just the context of your business but the context in which your customers buy.

Just because you sell on price doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be satisfied with a bare-bones relationship — it’s up to businesses to determine what their buyers demand from them and to try to meet that demand.

So there’s the paradox. Have you meditated upon what that means for your business yet?

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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