I think there are at least three ways for a company to frame its relationship with the customer:
- We transact with you: This means the company exchanges its goods and services for your money. Of course, like anything else, this can be done awfully or brilliantly. Brilliantly done means the good or service is relevant, of high quality, delightful…, that the price is fair, that the transaction process is convenient…
- We serve you: This means that the company helps meet your needs, solve your problems, achieve your ambitions… This requires most of the elements of the transactional model – you have to serve something after all, but the orientation to the customer is different. The mindset is different. It’s one that places priority, even primacy, on the interests and needs of the customer.
- We have a relationship with you: This means the company engages with you in a more holistic way and that this engagement changes over time in an organic way in response to shared experience. And the phrase “engages with you” is critical. It’s not something they do to you. Or on you. Or even for you. It’s something they do with you. Now, of course, in any relationship there will be moments where A is doing something for B. Or vice versa. But over the long-term a relationship is about mutual interests and needs and is co-created equally by all participants.
A few interesting observations about the above:
First, a service relationship is a relationship. But it is not holistic. It defines a priori the purpose and nature of the relationship, and the roles each party will play. A service relationship does not have a lot of room for organic growth. The company can get better at serving you but that’s all they can be or do.
Second, a true relationship morphs as each party learns about the other, as the world changes, as they share experiences and make choices together… It is much more complete than a service-only relationship. It is much more relevant. [Of course limited service-based relationships can grow over time into a more holistic relationship.]
Third, frames 1 and 3 above place the company and you on an equal footing. Frame 2 places the company in a servile position relative to you.
What got me thinking about all of this is an email I received from Carbonite – the web-based backup service. They reminded me that I hadn’t backed up my computer for a week and suggested I contact them with any questions. It was a very nice email. The reminder was helpful. They were serving me – identifying my need and reaching out to help me solve it. But they haven’t engaged me in a real relationship. Their communication is not fully relevant. It is not based on what’s going on for us today. It is not based on shared experience.
Why not? Because there has just been a massive storm – Hurricane Sandy. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s been on the news a bit. But it seems that Carbonite has not heard of it. They know I live in the northeast. They can probably tell based on my IP address and they can certainly tell based on the billing address of the credit card I used to pay them. So they know I live in the heart of the affected area. But they have not at all acknowledged that fact. This shows me that they are just not paying attention. They have not bothered to check to see whether my failure to back my computer up might be because I actually don’t have power.
What could they have done?
Easy. They could have sent an email saying that they’d noticed I hadn’t connected my computer to their servers in a while. They could have asked me whether I was OK, whether I had been affected by Sandy… They could have expressed a hope that all is well with me. That would have been enough. If they wanted, they could have gone further. They could have suggested ways I might select the few files that are critical to back up so that when I go to a place with free wifi I could backup just what is really needed. They could have suggested places I go to find power and wifi….
Bottom line: An email like the one I got from Carbonite is weird. It had some of the trappings of humanity but was blatantly missing what really makes humans tick, and certainly what makes human relationships possible – basic empathy or concern for another. When we get emails like that from companies, it becomes immediately apparent that they actually don’t care about us very much. That they want the money we give them but they don’t want to connect with us.