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Strengthening Customer Relations

When people say they'd like to have a partnership with their customers, what they sometimes mean is "Let's you and I agree to do things my way." No wonder they're not successful! The following articles will help you build and maintain a strong relationship with your customers.

Food Flights

Whatís the best way to tell customers that a snafu has occurred? Do you tell them the truth, or do you rely on fabrication, prevarication and obfuscation? Is it better to tell them sooner or hold off till later?

One of the best examples Iíve ever seen of the delivery of bad news occurred on a later morning flight I took many years ago. Just how many will soon become clear.

As we boarded, I overheard one flight attendant nervously saying to another, "Gee, Iíve never seen this situation before! What in the world should we do?" She didnít sound frantic; puzzled was more like it.

Fortunately, as soon as we departed, a flight attendant came on the loudspeaker and announced the problem. Happily, it was nothing serious ó provided you donít take airline food seriously (or didnít, back when the airlines actually served more than the occasional peanut or pretzel). It seems that although it was a noontime flight, half the meals loaded by the catering service were breakfasts.

The flight attendant told us the crew could have had the situation rectified, but not without a significant delay in departure. "So," she explained, "we had to make a quick decision, and we concluded that reaching your destination on time would be more important to you than what you had for lunch. We hope you find this decision acceptable. So for todayís flight, we are pleased to offer you a choice of chicken or French toast. We hope you will be understanding if you donít get your first choice."

Whether at altitude or sea level, customers dislike having things go wrong. But when such things happen ó as they inevitably do ó what many customers resent most is having information about the situation kept from them. In fact, when Iíve questioned customers on this subject, most have said the same thing: If thereís bad news, they want to hear it now and hear it straight. Many, in fact, have stated point blank that they know problems will occur. All they ask is that they be notified in a timely manner and told the truth.

I remember well the comment of one particular customer whom I interviewed. Referring to the department that had handled her groupís needs, she said, "What they need to understand is that we have responsibilities and accountabilities too. We need to know whatís happening so that we can make adjustments at our end."

Conversely, I heard just the opposite from a customer who had been informed that the service group wouldnít be able to meet its needs, "Iím disappointed they couldnít do what we needed, but I appreciate that they told me the truth. That makes it easier for me to trust them in the future."

When trust is lacking in a customer relationship, itís often because important information has been unreasonably delayed or deliberately distorted, preventing customers from taking steps to plan accordingly. It is understandable for a service provider to want to withhold bad news, but bad news that is delayed or distorted can do much more to damage a relationship than bad news quickly revealed.

As for me, I appreciated that the flight attendant quickly acknowledged the problem, explained the crewís decision ó and served me my first choice. I love French toast any time of day!

Copyright © 2006 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com


Nice (Yawn...) Talking to You

During a break at a conference, a woman named Marge told me about an experience she had recently had at another conference. It seems that she'd been talking to the keynote speaker, Sam, when he abruptly turned away and started talking to someone else. I asked if Sam had cut her off in midsentence. No, she admitted. She had finished what she was saying, but was about to say something else when he rudely turned away.

Marge sounded deeply offended at the way sheíd been treated. In her view, Sam wasnít interested in her ideas and couldnít be bothered with her. Could it be, I asked, that his apparent rudeness had been unintentional and that he'd offer a heartfelt apology if he knew of her reaction? She said she didnít care; Sam was in the public eye and should know better.

Marge's reaction got me thinking about how easy it to cause offense in a different context: working with customers. How often do we make a comment, use a phrase, glance a certain way, or do something seemingly innocuous, and in the process unintentionally offend a customer? How often do we do so, and not even realize it because the offended person doesnít tell us about it and give us a chance offer an apology or correct a misinterpretation?

Over the next several months, I described Marge's experience during my Managing Customer Expectations seminars, and asked participants if they could think of situations in which an inadvertent word or action might offend customers.

Their response: Indeed, yes. How? On the phone, by sounding unenthusiastic or bored or distracted. In a class, by looking elsewhere while someone is asking a question. At a meeting, by looking at your watch while a customer is speaking to you. Or by looking around the room ó particularly in the direction of the exit!

Or as in Samís case, by not waiting that extra fraction of a second after the customer finishes speaking before turning away, as though you canít wait to escape.

If your responsibilities involve customer contact, your customers may hold you to a higher standard just as Marge held Sam, and they may think that you too should know better. Therefore, itís wise to be sensitive to their reactions to your words and actions. You donít have to go to extremes and worry about whether every syllable or blink or nod might cause offense. Just be mindful of your behavior, and youíll be less likely to allow a careless word or action to create negative perceptions.

Having given a keynote presentation just two hours before my conversation with Marge, I took great pains to remain enthusiastic and wide-eyed, while letting Marge fully and completely have her say. Then I smiled my biggest smile, told her how much I enjoyed speaking with her, and carefully ó very carefully ó took my leave.

Copyright © 2006 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Customer-Focused Verbs

Certain verbs are important if you want to build successful relationships with customers. Verbs such as to respond, care, and support. There's another verb that's not so customer-focused, though, and that is to get. I don't mean to get as in "to get a 50% raise for exceeding a customer's expectations." No, I mean to get as in "to get customers to do things your way."

It's amazingly easy to slip into this usage, without even intending to. For example:

In organization #1, a manager bemoaned his customers' use of software products other than those his group had declared to be the standard. Calls for help with such products were a drain on his limited support resources. He asked, How can we get them to follow our standards?
In organization #2, customers complained incessantly about the delays between ordering equipment and receiving it. How can we get them to stop complaining? asked a service rep.
In organization #3 - and this is the most striking example of all - a director frustrated with his customers' resistance to doing things his way asked, How can we get them to be partners with us?

Now, I'm no verbologist, but such usages concern me because they suggest that our way is the only way and that coercion is necessary to achieve the desired result.

How can I get you to read this paragraph?

The truth, though, is that you can't get anyone to willingly do anything they don't really want to. Oh, they may do it, especially if they don't have a choice, but that doesn't mean they'll whistle a happy tune while doing it.

What makes this verbacious misuse so frustrating is that people are often quite willing to support a decision if they've had a say in the matter. It's not the decision per se that they resist and resent, but how that decision was made and how it was foisted upon them. How was the decision made? Unilaterally, without their input or participation. And how was it foisted upon them? As a fait accompli. A done deal. Shut up and do it because we said so.

Fortunately, the solution is painless and wonderfully rewarding. Simply replace divisive verbs such as get with customer-focused verbs such as help and involve, and then match your actions to these new verbs. So rather than getting customers to do things your way, you'll help them understand how they'll benefit by your solution. Or (even better) you'll involve them in making decisions that'll affect them, so they buy into those decisions.

In the process of helping and involving customers, you may even discover that your solution isn't the only one. Or even the best one. Customers bring a perspective that may lead to solutions different from yours, but equally effective (or more effective) - and more likely to succeed because customers had a say in their formulation.

I'll help you see the difference

How would verb replacement affect organizations such as the three I described? Well, here's how three other organizations addressed similar situations:

Organization #4, unlike organization #1, invited several customers to participate in the standard-setting process. As a result, customers came to understand the benefits of standardization and the pitfalls of a do-your-own-thing approach. When the job was done, both parties promoted the resulting standards. Not all customers favored the products selected, but they all supported the selection process and accepted the results.
In organization #5, service reps asked some customers to participate in a discussion about their purchasing woes, something organization #2 never did. In the course of the discussion, both service reps and customers realized for the first time how badly the process was bogged down with bugs and bottlenecks. On the spot, they decided to work as a team to gather additional information, analyze the entire process and recommend changes.
As in organization #3, staff in organization #6 wanted a partnership with their customers. They realized, though, that actions speak louder than this often meaningless word. The transition wasn't quick. But once they started trying to understand, appreciate and respect their customers' perspective (three other great verbs), customers became much more accommodating as well. No one called it a partnership, but that's exactly what began to evolve.

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Laugh Track

Sometimes things are not what they seem. Take the case of a company in which I was helping two technical support groups work together more amicably. One group provided first level support to the company's business departments. The other group provided second level support; the problems they handled were fewer in number but greater in complexity than those of the Level One group. A spirit of cooperation was essential to their ability to serve customers effectively, yet that spirit was severely lacking.

During a session with the two groups, a situation came to light that had been troubling the Level One group: It seems that Level One staff automatically escalated to Level Two certain complex problems that caused serious disruption to customers and required immediate attention. Level One staff members then periodically dropped by the Level Two's work area to check on the status of the resolution.

Laugh it up

And when they dropped by, what did they find the Level Two staff doing? Laughing. Laughing! Customers were unable to do their work, and the people in charge of fixing the problem were joking, kidding, giggling, having a good old time, and not taking the problem seriously at all.

I asked the Level Two group: What do you make of this description you've just heard? Their initial reaction was one of surprise. Then they explained: The Level One team has misread the situation. In fact, they said, we take such situations extremely seriously. And that's what our laughter is about. These situations are stressful, and when we're under stress, the way we let off steam is to laugh. It's a way to relieve tension. But our laughing doesn't mean we're not giving the problem our full attention. Just the opposite; it helps to relax us and lets us be more productive.

Behave yourself!

Surfacing this misunderstanding and getting past it was a relief to both groups, and it led to an interesting question: Should Level Two staff adopt dour demeanors when working on top priority problems? The Level One staff now saw the situation differently and thought not. Once they recognized their misinterpretation of the Level Two behavior and understood what was behind the laughter, they saw no problem with it.

But the Level Two staff now saw the situation differently as well. Laughing is fine, they concluded, but they needed to be more sensitive to how such behavior might look to others. They decided that when anyone else is around, they'd be wise to avoid uproarious laughter or any other frivolous behavior, particularly when they were working on urgent problems.

How easy it is to misinterpret the behavior of others. How hard it is to remember that people are forming impressions of us all the time, even when we don't know they're watching. Indeed, how quickly such things can become no laughing matter.

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Building a Foundation

As a result of a corporate reorganization, an information systems division was to begin supporting a new client division. The managers of the two divisions wanted the groups to have a foundation on which to build their new relationship. When groups lack such a foundation, conflicts arise more often and are more difficult to resolve. Conversely, foundation-building efforts result in relationships in which conflicts occur less frequently, and are more quickly and amicably resolved. Foundation-building helps the two parties achieve a mutual feeling that they are working together toward common goals.

To help build this foundation, I was invited to facilitate a two-day get-together. Not much time, but it was time they would spend away from work responsibilities. Trying to build or strengthen relationships amidst the chaos of daily work life is difficult at best, so it's a good idea to arrange for the groups to spend some dedicated time together away from their commitments and obligations.

Getting to know you

A key to foundation-building success is enabling participants to begin to know each other apart from their work roles, and to appreciate how much they have in common. Accordingly, many of the activities were designed with this key in mind.

Day one of our two-day meeting revolved around skills-building activities. The idea was to focus on the serious subject of communications, but to do so in a relaxed and humorous way that would give participants an opportunity to talk with each other, solve problems together, and laugh together. By the end of the first day, the members of the two groups were not exactly old friends, but neither were they strangers or, worse, adversaries. Their interactions were characterized by a level of rapport and camaraderie not evident at the start of the day. And they were now ready for the more serious discussions planned for day two.

On day two, it was time to focus on the relationship between the two groups, and in particular on what they were going to do to strengthen their ability to work together. If they are to buy in to the ideas raised, and to have a stake in the success of these ideas, the ideas must be their own. This requires creating a setting in which their ideas can flow and be shared. To create this setting, I divided them into two groups, one of systems personnel and one of clients, and asked them to discuss two questions regarding the other group:

Question 1. What don't you understand about their policies, responsibilities and activities? What puzzles you? What have you always wanted to know about, but never had the opportunity to ask?

Question 2. What can you do to help them better understand your policies, responsibilities and activities?

After they discussed these questions among themselves, I asked each group to report their responses to Question 1, and to engage in whatever discussion they cared to. The results were fascinating. With each item that one group described as puzzling or confusing, someone in the other group eagerly offered an explanation, clarification, or source of additional information. If you were a fly on the wall, you would have heard comments like "I can explain that," and "Let's schedule some time so I can step you through the entire procedure" - and (usually with a laugh), "It's no wonder you don't understand; we're pretty confused about it ourselves."

For the first time, admitting to the other group that they didn't know it all felt comfortable and unthreatening. And asking the other group for help was not only OK, it was encouraged. Indeed, both groups enjoyed answering questions for the other and filling in the gaps in the other's knowledge.

Together, wherever we go

The responses of the two groups to Question 2 were amazingly similar. For example, each group invited members of the other group to attend their staff meetings and to visit their department to observe work-in-progress. Each offered to review their procedures with the other and to set aside time to answer non-urgent questions. They even agreed to have a buddy system so that anyone who needed clarification on some issue could call a designated member of the other group for help. Before I knew it, the two groups were collaborating on how they could work together to raise their mutual level of understanding.

To build on the energy generated by these ideas, I presented other pairs of questions for discussion within each group, followed by dialogue between groups. In less than 48 hours, these two groups built a foundation for a strong relationship. A year later, the managers reported that the foundation still stood strong. I firmly believe that all groups have it within themselves to do the same.

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Karten Associates
Randolph, Mass., USA

Copyright © 2004 Karten Associates. All rights reserved.