Relationship Marketing

How relationships can turn your customers into your best friends (or worst enemies).

You’ve probably heard about relationship marketing. Maybe you’ve even taken some steps to create more customer loyalty by being more “friendly” with your customers. Indeed, developing customer relationships can be a great way to grow your business and profits. Steve Yastrow wrote a book about the topic, We: The Ideal Customer Relationship.

We: The Ideal Customer Relationship by Steve YastrowIn Yastrow’s first chapter, he provides compelling evidence for developing customer relationships, stating: “Relationships have become powerful differentiators. Customers can’t tell if your product is better than your competitor’s product, but they can tell if they have a better relationship with you than with your competitor.”

Even better, the profit potential for developing relationships with your customers is high. In Yastrow’s research, he found that 89% of people prefer to buy from a business they have a relationship with; 86% would prefer to buy from a business that they have regular conversations with, and 90% prefer to buy from a business that talks with them about future decisions they might make. Here’s the real revelation, though: 79% of people are more likely to buy from a business they have a relationship with rather than the business with the best prices. Similarly, 86% would be more likely to refer a business they have a relationship with than to refer a business with the best prices.

“Wow!” you say, “Sounds amazing, but what’s the catch?” It turns out developing good relationships with your customers isn’t easy (but it’s still worthwhile).

Predictably Irrational by Dan ArielyThe reason customer relationships are hard is explained in Dan Ariely’s bookPredictably Irrational. In chapter 4, “The Cost of Social Norms,” he explains that we live in two different worlds: one governed by social norms, and one governed by market norms. Ariely writes:

“Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required: you may help move your neighbor’s couch, but this doesn’t mean he has to come right over and move yours.”

There’s nothing “warm and fuzzy” about the world ruled by market norms, however:

“The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest and cost-and-benefits….When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for—that’s just the way it is.”

What happens when we develop customer relationships, and those worlds collide?

Ariely reports on an experiment in a day care center that tested the interchangeability of social norms and market norms. Parents usually viewed their relationship with the day care center as social, but when there arose a problem of parents picking up their children late, the center imposed a fine on latecomers (thereby introducing a market rule).  The instance of late parents actually increased, because parents now felt they were paying to be late and no longer felt any social obligation to arrive on time.

When the day care center reversed the fine, Ariely saw that something interesting happened. Even more parents started picking up their children late. Because introducing the market norm violated the social norm, parents no longer felt a social connection with the center. When the fine was removed, both motivators—guilt and the fine—vanished, so there was no compelling reason to arrive on time. Ariely sums this up by asserting, “When a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time. Social relationships are not easy to reestablish.

How does this relate to business? Let me tell you a story about a normally reasonable person who got caught in the crosshairs of social norms vs. market norms, resulting in slightly deranged behavior. (Okay, I’ll admit it. I am that person.)

Picture of a puffin I took on an inferior cruise.Two years ago, my husband and I were planning a trip to Maine. We chose to vacation there primarily because Maine is full of natural beauty and wildlife, specifically puffins. I had heard you could take a puffin-watching cruise, and I was enamored at once. We sorted through all the puffin-watching websites to choose the best-sounding one: it took you right to the main puffin island, where you would disembark and likely be only four feet away from the puffins. The website even had a charming story about the boat, company and captain. All of the warm, fuzzy feelings and my active imagination had put me solidly into relationship, social-norm territory with this company. And I hadn’t even called them yet.

When I did call them, I had to leave multiple messages on their voicemail. Each message assured me someone would take my reservation, so I wasn’t too upset. I felt like I was already their friend, so what’s a few missed calls between friends?

Finally, someone answered my call. She was rude, abrasive and crushed my hopes of seeing puffins up close and personal: The boat was full. They don’t keep waiting lists. Then, she hung up on me.

After I got over my grief, I became furious. I signed up for a account and wrote a scathing review. To give my review clout, I even reviewed animal-related attractions I had been to in other cities. How dare they promise to show me puffins then take it all away? I seethed over this betrayal for weeks (just ask my unfortunate husband).

To me, our relationship was based on social norms. To the puffin-watching company, we didn’t have a relationship. I was just a person they forgot to call back…for months. They thought they made a simple customer service mistake that didn’t affect their business. After all, they filled up the boat, right? Maybe, but my review remains immortal.

Referring again to Steve Yastrow’s book, We, he advocates creating special kinds of relationships that he calls We Relationships. It involves learning about your customer and using the information you glean to develop a relationship that feels unique, fresh and equally valuable to both customer and company. To learn more about creating these relationships, I recommend you read his book.

Developing relationships with your customers is the surest route to earning their loyalty, continued business and enthusiastic referrals. However, unless you tend the relationship with care, you risk creating a jilted customer. And we all know the adage: Hell hath no fury like a customer scorned.

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