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Love is a verb: 5 things you need for a healthy customer relationship Ken Hughes - November 18, 2021

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Who wants to be in a loveless relationship without commitment? Nobody, that’s who. So why do we expect our customers to show us ‘loyalty’ if we are not showing love and commitment to them?

Coming out of the pandemic, there are key aspects to all of our relationships we value more than we did 18-months ago – connection, authenticity, honesty, transparency and vulnerability to name a few. Relationship with self, our partners, family and friends were all put under new pressures, and as we emerge into this post-pandemic reality, the importance of relationship is clear to most.

In business, Relationship Marketing was heralded as a unique and new philosophy in the 1980s, moving away from the Transactional to a Relational model. It was the beginning of CRM systems and philosophies. But despite significant technological advances, most CX interactions remain very transactional.

We throw around words like Customer Lifetime Value, Customer Loyalty, and Brand Tribal Belonging and somehow hope that these will come about without significant investment in relationship. Just as in our personal relationships in life, if we want our relationship with our customers to last, we have to put in the work. There is no point in talking about customer lifetime value if we are not committed to putting in the work.

Loved and Lost

Think about any unrequited love experience you had in your past. Maybe you have to go back to your teenage years or maybe it is more recent. When I was 20, I fell for a beautiful Swedish girl named Pia, who had arrived to study at my university for a year. She had a boyfriend back home but I pursued her all that year regardless (to predictably fail). The relationship was wholly unbalanced, unhealthy and one-sided, fraught with self-imposed pain for me. Boyfriend with all of the duties but none of the benefits!

Reproduced with permission from Pia, because we both look young and would like to pretend we still are.

We have all had those moments. Try and remember the heartache of liking/loving someone but not having that reciprocated, the pain, the sense of hopelessness. Well, we do that to our customers every time we don’t show them the love and belonging they deserve. We talk about wanting to build brand loyalty but offer new customers a better deal than existing ones (and we justify that by using fancy words like ‘customer acquisition strategy’).

Form a Relationship

Our customers deserve more. If we are to truly deliver on our CX promises, we need to learn how to build better customer relationships, and to do that we should borrow from personal relationship theory. Anyone who follows Positive Psychology podcasts or articles will probably be up to speed with the aspects that are essential to form healthy, deep human relationships.

Think about the most important person in your life from a personal relationship perspective – your life partner, the person you’re dating right now, a family member, friend or your children – it doesn’t matter. Just hold that relationship in your mind throughout reading this. If we can make sense of our personal relationships, understand why certain things are important, we can certainly bring those same skills to our CX work too.

This blog is the first in a three-part series exploring the nature of relationship. In this, part one, we will explore the first five (of ten) attributes that are key to healthy, deep nurturing relationships. Part two will explore the other five, while part three will outline the love languages we can use in CX to bring these attributes to life along a customer journey.

So, let’s get straight into it (he says after waffling on about his unrequited teen crushes!). First up >

1.Love & Commitment

Who wants to be in a loveless relationship without commitment? Nobody, that’s who. So why do we expect our customers to show us ‘loyalty’ if we are not showing love and commitment to them? Personal relationships work when we give them ‘maximum effort’ but when we test our many points along a customer journey, we often find we are just delivering ‘basic levels of service’ and certainly not ‘maximum effort’. We are turning up to date night dressed in our sweat pants.

Are You Committed?

Commitment is also about planning a future together – that’s what it means when you slip a ring on someone’s finger or ask them to be your life partner. You are asking them to plan a future with you. We want that commitment from our customers but how do we plan that future with them, a mutual benefit future (not one that we just benefit from their business).

US based grocery chain Trader Joe’s does not do home delivery. Even through the pandemic they did not alter this, it just is not part of their business model. But when an 89-year-old veteran was trapped in his home during one snowy Pennsylvanian winter, his daughter ringing around frantically trying to get someone to deliver food to him, they stepped up. Not only did they deliver when she called his local store looking for help, they wouldn’t take any money for the groceries provided either. They showed their love and commitment for a customer through action.

So, how are we showing our customers that we are genuinely in this for the long haul and not just their next transaction? Relationships fail all the time because the commitment one person was hoping for never materialised or they fail to communicate or show love. Remember, love is a verb. And let’s stop using words like ‘customer acquisition’ and ‘customer retention’. That’s like writing a Tinder profile that says ‘I’d like to take you back to my place and lock you in a cage in my basement’ – not sure you’d have many takers.  Let’s hope that the love and commitment we show our customers is why they chose us, and we don’t have to acquire or retain them.

2. Quality Time Together

Imagine you’re out for dinner and your date keeps checking and typing on their phone at the table all evening, how you would feel? When someone doesn’t give you their full attention you do not feel loved. In fact, screentime is often a major issue in modern relationships, in the bedroom and on the couch – couples together but not together, something that reached critical levels for many during the work-from-home switchover in the past 18-months.

Don’t Waste My Time

We value our time. We pay extra to buy that Fastpass ticket at the theme park to avoid spending one hour in the queue for every ride. We buy priority boarding on the plane to ensure we spend less time hanging around in the airport (unless you are flying with Europe’s low-cost carrier Ryanair, where priority boarding gets you earlier access to the next queue in the industrial airport stairwell!). The point here is we value time. It is a precious thing, once gone never to be recaptured. Showing our partner we have time for them, making time for them, spending time with them – these are all the actions of a healthy relationship.

Recently I had issues with the corporate credit card. I needed to contact the AIB call centre as their authentication app was glitching and directing me to the call centre. After 51 minutes on hold, the agent informed me that the issue was on their side, and that I would just have to keep trying and call back every few days until it was resolved on their end. They were asking a customer to give up significant time every day to resolve an issue that was their fault. This is not what you expect from a CX interaction and no way to build a relationship.

So, challenge yourself on the time you are giving to your customer. Don’t just wait to reach out to them at conflict or renewal/upsell points in the customer journey.  Make the time to show them you care. Identify any points along the customer journey you can save them time, through digital convenience or better processes.

3. Intimacy

Now I know where you have all gone in your heads when you read that word. Yes, I want to grow my brand, but I am not getting naked with my customers! Calm down, you don’t have to get it on with anyone (unless of course it’s a very profitable B2B account, then …)

Beyond Physical Intimacy

Physical intimacy is, of course, really important in personal relationships (something sheltering-in-place proved to many). Touch, massage, kissing, and sex are all ways we show those in our lives we love them. But there are other types of intimacy also, namely emotional, mental and spiritual.

Emotional intimacy is all about affirming, caring and being interested in each other’s feelings. In a customer relationship, that is about showing empathy and compassion with your customer, caring about their situation, showing them they are valued by affirming their emotions.

Mental intimacy in personal relationships is about having meaningful conversation, shared values and interests.   It is about finding a partner with intellectual common ground and interests. The same is true in CX – in our customer interactions we need to be genuine, authentic and meaningful.

Lastly Spiritual intimacy is about having respect for each other’s beliefs (whatever they may be), having a shared purpose and nurturing inner peace. Showing your customer respect for whatever they believe to be true is important. Validate their feelings if you are dealing with a conflict moment, and try and find a shared purpose, common ground. That is how you lay down the foundations of customer lifetime value.

Kerry Drake was travelling from his home in San Francisco to Texas, connecting via Houston to get to the bedside of his dying mother. He had got the dreaded call that day and was racing to her bedside. It was a tight 40-minute connection in Houston but he had to take the risk. As it happens, his outbound San Francisco flight was delayed and he was visibly upset on board. The cabin crew, on learning why, had the pilot radio ahead and they held his next plane at the gate ensuring he made his connection. In aviation, every minute counts and costs, but in this example, the brand showed they cared about their passengers feelings, and showed it through their actions.

Remember, intimacy is about fostering a sense of closeness. So, ask yourself, what are you doing to in your CX interactions and strategy that might deliver that ‘sense of closeness’.

4. Fidelity, Trust & Honesty

Relationships tend to fracture when you can no longer trust your partner. Trust takes time to build but can be lost all too quickly. This is one of my all-time favourite trust videos. Watch the video below before reading on.

I imagine this is as cringey to watch on video as it was to be there on that day, but we do this to our customers every day. We tell them we ‘have them’ then we ‘drop them’. We are less than honest with them. We cheat them.

Every year your insurance company sends you a renewal quote. You ring around, get a better quote from a competitor and then they match it. You catch them out at their inflated premium. Your utility or broadband company that has you on a higher package although they can see based on your usage that you would be more suited to a cheaper offer. Your bank charging you maintenance fees on a dormant account you’ve forgotten about. All examples of a brands not being trustworthy with their customers.

I once tried to pay for a made-to-order smoothie in a small café near Bondi beach in Sydney. It turned out Jenny’s Café only took cash; my card was useless. I was already drinking the smoothie while trying to pay so was out of options. There were no ATM machines nearby and I rarely carry cash when travelling.  She told me I could simply pay the next time I was passing. I laughed, explaining I was only in town for one speech and gone back to Ireland the next day. She smiled and said that I could pay the next time I was in town. And so yes, about a year later when I was back in Sydney for a show, I made it my business to go back and pay. She thought it was hilarious, but I had been trusted. Every time I travel to Sydney now, I make it my business to buy a smoothie from that café. It’s a tradition. Trust builds relationships.

5. Effective Communication

A healthy personal relationship relies on good communication skills. You might get away with it for a while, but ultimately no relationship can survive where the parties are not able to communicate.

For years we have been communicating AT customers. Those days are over, shouting at them with a megaphone, hoping that someone will hear us. Brands are still doing it on social media, spraying the channels with irrelevant branded sponsored content. We need to move to a conversational model, a two-way philosophy.

Learn to Listen

Also, communication is not really about what you say, but about your role in active listening. In relationship, at some point many of us learn the difference between listening (being quiet and hearing words) and active listening (hearing what they are saying, empathising, not getting defensive, and thinking about what you can do to make a difference). There is a huge difference and it is a skill that takes time to develop. In CX, we need to think about how we communicate at every point along the customer journey, how authentic those communications are, and how the customer may feel.

Of course, sometimes brand communications can backfire, like this motivational Monday quote from Amtrak California.

And staying with trains, brands can also have some fun through active listening with customers. I love the idea of the Virgin Tweet resource, whoever they were and located who knows where, calling a train to deliver toilet roll to a passenger.

So, ask yourself are you really listening to what your customers are saying and are your communications a two-way street? Genuine communication (that isn’t just upsell) makes a customer feel connected, seen, heard and valued.

o those are the first five attributes of healthy relationships. There are another five to cover (part II), plus a discussion on love languages (part III). It’s a trilogy, get yourself some popcorn. But for now, you have enough to be going on with in the five above.

Take your customer journey and look for moments where you can activate one of these five things to deepen your customer relationships, to better connect. You don’t have to activate them all, at all points, at all times. Find the point they make most sense.

And once you have done that, look inwards. Do you remember I asked you to hold a personal relationship in your mind throughout this? Well, this week, tell them you love them, do something to show how committed you are to the relationship and to them, spend more time with them, go out of your way to create moments of intimacy and closeness this week, tell them you appreciate the trust you have together and actively listen when they come to you with issues.

Love is a verb. You have to do something to truly let your partner know they matter to you. What’s good for better CX connections is also good for you.

This blog is an extract from Ken Hughes’ brand new ‘LOVE IS A VERB’ keynote speech.

Ken Hughes is now considered one of the World’s leading speakers on the subject of consumer values, organizational change, leadership and agility. His virtual and live in-person keynotes are famous for their high-energy, thought provoking content as well as their impactful and inspiring delivery.

Click here to book this inspiring keynote for your next physical, virtual or hybrid event.

The original article appeared on Ken Hughes's website, you can read it here.

Ken Cropped
Ken Hughes

Ken Hughes is now acknowledged as being one of the world’s leading authorities on consumer, shopper and cyber shopper behaviour. He is internationally renowned for helping his...