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Making customer relationships thrive

In my writings and my consulting work, I often talk about trust.  "Trust", as someone said, "is like money-- easy to lose and hard to get." In business, we all know that establishing and sustaining trust is what ensures that customers stay with us for the long haul. In our hectic, fast-paced world of instant communication, if we are not careful, we might risk a loss of trust by being too efficient with our communication.     One of the ways we might miss building trust or losing it is by overusing digital communication, especially if it is substituted for meetings where we meet in-person with our customers. My contention is that trust, the foundation of relationships, is enhanced and strengthened when we meet face-to face.

How do we build trust? All of us can fill in the blank on the sentence, "We trust people who ______________." with examples from our own experiences. Here are a few of mine.

"I trust people who:

  • listen to what I have to say and encourage me to say it.
  • don't prejudge or assume the worst when unforeseen things happen.
  • are fair in applying their policies, principles and practices.
  • encourage others to give input and participate in decisions.
  • do what they say they will do.

All of the above examples indicate to me that the person or persons who practice those things are both respectful and appreciative of others. By doing things consistently, trust is built, reinforced and sustained through multiple examples over time. Consistency in how we speak and act is important. Customers depend on us to do things that help them, their families and their own businesses do well. If customer relationships are not nurtured and consistently reinforced, trust can dissipate or disappear altogether.

What is the difference between efficient and effective communication? To illustrate the differences, I like to use Peter Drucker's definitions of efficiency and effectiveness. "Efficiency", as Drucker stated, "is doing things the right way." This is contrasted with, "Effectiveness is doing the right things." Efficiency focuses on elimination of wasted time, efforts and money. Effectiveness asks us to ponder whether what we are doing is necessary and/or the best approach to solve a problem or a difficulty, or in the case of customer service, build a relationship. In fact, we may need to spend more time, money and effort to be effective in the short term. With the high cost of people in mind and with improved technological tools at their disposal, organizations have been looking at ways to streamline operations. Included are production, sales, delivery and invoicing of products and sales, and delivery and invoicing of services. In an ideal world, making steps and processes simpler and less labor intensive should result in lower costs and greater satisfaction on all sides. However, in the real world, it doesn't always work that way. In fact, there are so many horror stories we have heard (and probably experienced) about product failures, frustrations with electronic ordering, anger at not being able to talk about our frustrations with a real person instead of a computer, being put on hold and forced to listen to unpleasant music or canned reminders that our call is very important. Worst of all, we may experience language difficulties when we reach the few humans behind the digital maze and find that they speak with accents that inhibit effective communication. These are all examples of sacrificing long term effectiveness for short term efficiency in order to cut costs. Sadly, it appears to be getting worse.

Effective communication means that all parties in the conversation are able to share their thoughts, concerns, suggestions, etc., and that all parties have actively listened, understood and been able to give feedback to the satisfaction of all involved. That can happen when two or more humans meet face-to-face, but it only accidentally happens when a human attempts to communicate through a digital means--email, texting, instant messaging, blogging, interactive, automated telephone, etc. The reason why these other means are so ineffective is due to the lack of body language.

 We know a lot about body language communication both from the perspective of our own experiences and from scientists who have studied how humans communicate effectively. In fact roughly 70% of our understanding of the messages being sent and interpreted comes through our voice, our gestures, our facial signals, our posture and many other subtle clues which are lessened or missing altogether in many forms of efficient communication. There is no body language in written communication regardless of the method. Email, texting, instant messaging, tweeting, blogging and interactive, automated telephone activities are simply more expedient ways to send a written message. They are faster yes, but no more effective than a letter or memo. Interestingly, a written thank you note, card or a letter with positive feedback and signed by the originator is far more likely to invoke good feelings by the receiver than a quick thank you text, tweet or email. The only forms of electronic communication that have some body language capabilities are teleconferencing (Skype, etc.) and cell or land line telephone calls. But, they are not a substitute for face-to-face to build trust.

How can we communicate to build and sustain trust? We have already made the case for the value of meeting face-to-face. It's how we can get to know each other better. When we do meet, here are some ways to make your customer conversations become more productive and rewarding.

1. Ask for feedback on products and services and pay attention to how the other(s) say things by observing their body language.

2. Actively listen, clarify comments by restating them and asking questions. Seek to understand before giving suggestions and solutions.

3. When it's time, do your best to fix problems and address concerns. Communicate what you'd been able to do to make things better.

4. If problems can't be fixed completely to the satisfaction of your customer, explain why and be honest in your explanation. Reasonable people understand that not every problem is solvable. They will appreciate your forthrightness.

5. Repeat Step 1 as often as you think it needs repeating. Trust your instincts.

Sid Scott is president of Scott Consultants in Dubuque, Iowa. E-mail editorial@mhwmag.com to contact Sid.
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