Relationship Management

“Most of us probably acquired our mentors more by luck than through planning. But with the erosion of traditional career ladders and the increasingly unstructured composition of the modern firm, individuals and companies alike are seeing ever-greater merits to institutionalizing this once-informal relationship called mentoring.”
— From, “Business: The Ultimate Resource,” Perseus Publishing

For most of the 20th century, there was no such animal as the personal computer and, therefore, no simple way for the average marketer to access sophisticated databases or track customer spending habits and behaviors. Salespeople and others directly involved with the customer actually had to get away from their desks and into their customers’ offices or homes if they expected to sell their products.

Knowledge of their customers’ needs, wants, and buying habits enabled them to evolve their product lines and supporting services. “Belly-to-belly” customer relationship management enabled marketers and decision makers to respond to these needs quickly. Intense competition forced manufacturers to create quality goods and deliver the highest levels of service. In fact, anti-trust legislation meant that for the companies formed by the breakup of monopolies, like Standard Oil or AT&T, service and brand identity were often the only tangible factors differentiating the newly formed companies from one another. The products sold were nearly identical.

Increasing demand, improved supply chains and an expanding global consumer base combined with the recognition of the need to develop quality products to create the business environment for today’s manufacturer. The costs of modern day relationship management come directly off of the profit line. While such solutions are often sold as a necessary cost of conducting business, sophisticated CRM solutions demand a significant top line without guaranteeing sufficient bottomline growth to offset the initial investment and continuing costs of maintenance.

For many managers, the only alternative to this expenditure is the expansion of their customer service-focus via a combination of technology and good old-fashioned people power. Whichever final solution a company uses, making CRM work requires an enterprise-wide understanding of who the customer is and why she’s interested in doing business with you in the first place.

1. Rome wasn’t built in a day – and it wasn’t burnt in a night.

Whether the target of our affections is a buyer, seller, employee, superior or paramour, a mutual understanding among all parties of the benefits to each stakeholder makes the relationship more meaningful and valuable. While many relationships rely heavily on contracts, agreements or formal instructions to define the roles, responsibilities and required contributions from each party, our most cherished relationships are those that have endured and overcome adversities. While most of us are familiar with the lessons of growth through adversity, too few are willing to invest the time and energy required to link the adversity portion of our most meaningful relationships to personal and organizational success.

The first step in improving the quality of any relationship is understanding what’s needed and expected out of the union. As with urgency and importance, needs and expectations are two distinctly different things. Decide if a particular action will make any difference in the grand scheme of things. Defining audience and stakeholder needs and expectations sharpens individual and organizational focus and lessens the time spent on unprofitable efforts. The second step in improving relationship quality is defining roles and responsibilities. Step three: ensure that everyone involved has an appreciation of the reciprocal value of their efforts.

2. Determining needs and expectations.

Learning about the needs of others and demonstrating a willingness to evolve our contribution to the relationship based on this knowledge, leads directly to enhancing relationship value. Clearly state needs and expectations up front and openly inquire about the needs and expectations of your fellow participants — especially when they are less verbal and/or non-communicative. Afterwards, merge the points of view and expected outcomes to form a value proposition that is unique to the relationship.

3. Our personal role in the relationship.

We are each mentors, students, parents, children, lovers, buyers, sellers, supervisors and subordinates. Our role depends on the time of day, location and the other people in the room. What role will you play this time? Is it similar to the role you’ve played in most of your other relationships? How does this new role compare with your self-image? The answers to these questions are important to know at the beginning of the relationship and to monitor as the relationship matures and evolves. These questions are applicable to an organization and an individual.

4. Managing relationship value.

Managing relationship value means effectively and continuously communicating successes and benefits. For example, a politician appreciates the value of the voters, business community and civic leaders that make up the area’s political machine. If she can meet or exceed their expectations, she increases the likelihood of re-election or election to a new, post. That’s why she is not shy in her efforts to communicate the value of the relationship when election time rolls around. On-the-street reporters, querying voters as they exit the polling booth, enable her constituents to voice their opion of the relationship’s value. In business, the customer vote with their wallets and the employee votes with his skills, experience and commitment to the enterprise.

However, unlike the saavy politician mentioned earlier, most of us will fail to communicate our ties to organizational profit or success. Keeping a log of our contributions and reminding others of their impact is our responsibility, not our clients’ boss’ associates’ or other relationship partners’. Of course, no partner wants to hear a constant litany of our successes without hearing som recognition of their contributions. Either way, it’s easier to remind those that we share a relationship with (customers, employees, partners, etc.) of the value that we bring and expect than it is to educate complete strangers (prospects, job candidates, new acquaintances) about how wonderful we are.

“We are shaped by adversity like kites against the wind”. Look for oppotunities to overcome adversity and share the resulting techniques with others. As long as we honor and cherish our relationships — past and present, good and bad — and seek out opportunities to deliver value to everyone involved, relationship management will remain a seemingly effortless exercise for any of us.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Norman

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