Keeping your customers from breaking up with you.
Posted Oct 19, 2007
In many ways, a successful business partnership is like a romantic relationship. Two people, or corporate entities, are engaging one another in what they hope to be a long-lasting and mutually satisfying endeavor.
We hear a lot about "partnerships" these days in the business world. There are preferred partners, valued partners, and strategic partners. These are all relationships being leveraged in slightly different ways for mutual gain. But in order to obtain true, sustainable value from these partnerships, they must instead be approached as relationships.
Like their romantic counterparts, business relationships will go through a natural evolution requiring awareness, understanding, flexibility, and agreement from both parties. Through my 20 years in the services industry, I've been able to categorize this evolution into five stages:
I've learned that it's important to be aware of each of these stages to avoid surprise or disappointment.
Phase One: The Dating Game.
The beginning of most business relationships is like filling out an ad in the classifieds: "Company seeks services provider. References a must."
How you respond to this request can say a lot about the kind of relationship you want to create. Businesses scramble to meet RFP deadlines and smother the request with information about the services they provide, instead of discussing the services that the potential client needs.
Companies that look beyond what is directly asked of them and focus on what could make the relationship stronger, are those that are most likely to add value to that relationship.
Phase Two: To the Altar
You've courted, you've shown that you want to be part of a team and you've expressed your commitment. Many couples go through pre-marriage counseling to discuss key issues for communication before they head to the altar. The same should take place in the business world. Some suggested questions to consider and discuss are:
- The Dating Game;
- To the Altar;
- The Honeymoon Phase;
- The Seven-Year Itch; and
- The Golden Years.
- What is our goal for this relationship?
- How should we communicate with each other, and how often?
- What do you need from me to be successful?
- What do I need from you?
Phase Three: The Honeymoon Phase
If you've effectively communicated and wooed each other with your business virtues, you are now in the Honeymoon Phase.
One of the biggest differences between a business relationship and a romantic relationship is that in business, it is easier to cut ties. The most successful companies are those that make it their priority to add value to the relationship.
An innovative idea was presented to me by a Relationship Manager at my company. She wanted to create a "Best Practices Summit" at which she would bring together two clients faced with similar business challenges. She felt that by bringing these two companies together so they could learn from one another, she would be adding value. She was right.
Phase Four: The Seven-Year Itch
An interesting phenomenon happens to almost every business relationship around the seven-year mark and normally there is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it. The secret is to know when the Itch is about to start and how to react.
Even the happiest clients begin to wonder what else might be out there. Most people feel they owe it to their business to evaluate the competitive landscape. This exercise can serve to strengthen their commitment to their existing relationship, re-jigger it, or abandon it.
Companies that only focus on delivering operational-level metrics are at the most risk during this phase -- other companies will promise to do your job faster, cheaper, and better.
If over the course of the relationship you've worked together to establish joint business goals, your ties will be stronger. The most stable relationships are surprisingly those that have gone through both good and bad times. I had a client tell me that it was during a particularly bad time in the relationship that he truly felt the depth and strength of our relationship.
Phase Five: The Golden Years
At my company, we have clients that have been with us for 15 years. These relationships are going strong because of hard work -- a relationship takes both a connection and an ongoing commitment.
This kind of thinking and level of commitment goes far beyond remembering birthdays and anniversaries. In the business world, it is a gift that will keep on giving.
About the Author
Julie Casteel is the chief global sales and marketing officer for ClientLogic, a leading global business process outsourcing provider.