Recently I spent some time with a long-time tenant. I had leased him a retail office space in 2010 and he happened to be on his way up to Napa for a wine-tasting. He reached out to me on Linkedin and we met up. My friend is a fantastic optometrist, charismatic, with a dry wit. His wife is one the smartest people I know — geneticist, PhD, author, etc. We went out to an upscale sushi restaurant in Walnut Creek. We talked about the state of his and her business, our families, our goals and rehashed experiences we had during our prior business dealings.
He was a crass negotiator and she played good cop. We had a fantastic time and as the night wound down, said our goodbyes and they were on their way to Wineland. I drove home thinking about the business relationships I have had over the years and was left wondering why we don't allow customers and clients become our friends.
- WE EXPECT THEM TO BE DISSATISFIED — Our products, our promises and our guarantees; we expect them to not meet the expectations of our clients so we hide in dark corners avoiding scorn, or we reside on the web where people can only ruin our reputation with Yelp and Google reviews.
- WE DON'T CARE ABOUT THEM — We have no investment in them as people, their lives or their cause. We provide them with a service or product but that is the extent of our caring. Unless they can provide us more revenue or need more products and services, their value is none. We will build our product and service by what our developers and management team define, not what our clients want.
- WE PLACE OURSELVES ABOVE OUR CLIENTS — Because they need something that we have, we look down on them and call them things like "consumers," "buyers," "target markets" and "segments."
- WE CREATE "BUSINESS" BOUNDARIES — We have hired people that don't have life skills and are not equipped to manage expectations, relationships and stay within well defined boundaries. We are terrible at laying out boundaries with our clients. We fear that they will run away if tell them "no."
- WE DON'T KNOW HOW TO HAVE RELATIONSHIPS — The company we form and the people we hire are not capable of operating within boundaries that would keep us out of hot water. It is an "HR Time Bomb."
This sounds a bit like a bad marriage. Yet many businesses are disconnected from their clients, fearful of engagement and personal interaction. We have trained our clients and customers to expect zero personal interaction. We are all like the DMV: Take a number, wait a long time, get served and walk out $50 dollars poorer. We have trained our clients and consumers to expect to be disconnected and expect us to be disengaged.
On Facebook, we ask customers to be friends. We ask them for access to their lives, history and information. But we don't reciprocate.
A Marketing Parable: The Baker
The baker used to know the name of his clients, and the expectation they had of him were clear: Good, fresh bread to provide sustenance for their families. Then the baker started cutting corners using flour of poor quality. The bread got smaller and the price went up. The baker wanted to be more profitable. Soon, he brought in an assistant to manage his shop while he opened another bakery.
The first customers who bought his bread knew his name. He knew them and their families. He knew how much bread they needed each week, which meant steady revenue and a happy baker.
The baker and his customers had a mutual respect and shared stories and laughter from time to time. The baker was the friend of his clients. But eventually, the baker spread himself thin and lost his customer relationships. It became about the bread. And once the quality decreased, his former customers found alternatives.
I heard my sales director get into a heated discussion with a client. Most executives would freak out if they heard this, but the relationship between this client and our sales director is personal. They are committed to each other. They committed to pay and we committed to service.
When a customer tells the baker that the bread was too hard or too small, the baker has a decision to make: He can change his process to meet their needs or he can tell them "that no one else else complained about the bread".
Yes, our clients can sometimes have unrealistic expectations. It is our job to let them know, just like with friends, and set proper expectations. We can be friends with our clients by setting clear boundaries that define the terms of the relationship. Great client relationships are built on trust and meeting each other half-way.