Why Developing Customer Relationships Is So Hard

The Harvard Business Review recently interviewed psychologist John Gottman, the executive director of the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle. Although Gottman’s work focuses mostly on interpersonal relationship (in contrast to business-customer relationships), many of his comments are pertinent to marketers. According to Gottman:

“Good relationships aren’t about clear communication — they’re about small moments of attachment and intimacy.”

My take: I’ve tried to convey the same sentiment when writing about the stories loyal customers tell. The stories loyal customers tell come from experience — and those experiences are often not planned and/or orchestrated. This has huge implications for marketers striving to build strong customer relationships. It implies that the best you can do is establish an environment that enables these “small moments of attachment” to happen, but that consciously trying to create them may seem forced or unauthentic.

Gottman also says that:

“Successful couples look for ways to accentuate the positive. They try to say ‘yes’ as often as possible.”

My take: I wrote a while back, in a post titled Trust Is A Two-Way Street, about the experience a fellow blogger had with her bank, in which her bank didn’t believe her when she said she had called to file a claim. Gottman’s comment echoes my sentiment that building a relationship isn’t simply about saying “trust us” but saying (and demonstrating) “we trust you.”

For many marketers, the notions of “small moments of intimacy” and “mutual trust” are foreign concepts. The result: While marketers talk about customer relationships, few (if any) really have an underlying sense and understanding for what that really means. And few have developed effective metrics to capture the strength of their customer relationships.

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9 thoughts on “Why Developing Customer Relationships Is So Hard

  1. I’ve been aware of the great work of John Gottman for a long time. As a professional counselor, I’ve learned that any help I’m able to give clients comes through and in the counselor/client relationship. Your post reminds me that credit unions interact with members in one of the most critical areas of their lives, their fiscal health. It makes sense that Gottman would have something to say to credit union staff, including the marketing staff.

  2. Ron,

    Another post that rocks!

    It synchs perfectly with something I’ve been preaching for years – that “brand” = reputation, and that the only way good business reputations are built is through a series of positive individual customer moments/encounters. Over time, these positive customer encounters coalesce into a good reputation, aka brand.

    The small, exceptional individual customer experiences have all the power in the world to build an enviable reputation for the business. The “small moments of intimacy.” I love that phrase!

  3. Ron,

    Lovely post.

    The truth really is while brands are desperate to build relationships with customers, successful relationships happen when customers want to build relationships with brands.

    Brands have to find that ‘sweet spot’ if they want to build truly lasting relationships.


  4. Ron – great comments about the “trust” factor. How many institutions have policies that are focused upon the bottom customers/members (i.e. the 1% that are delinquent on loans), thereby forcing good and trustworthy customers or members to climb major hurdles to do business with them? There still seems to be this focus upon the “lowest common denominator”. Because one customer lied about their income on their loan app, all applicants now have to give us a copy of their paystub!

  5. Reminds me of something that Bob Thompson, the CRM guru from http://www.CustomerThink.com once said in replying to a post of mine there: Namely, that successful companies hire people who care about people, i.e. truly about taking care of their customers.

    In my own experience too you can provide customers with one of those small moments by being proactive about their experience/success. Even if you fail to make things right on days when things are broken, they still give you credit for at least trying.

    Difficult to measure such investment however. You would have to use control groups or before/after brand equity studies to see whether the effort breaks even.

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