Customers Want Professional Relationships, Not Friendships

By Shostack, G. Lynn | American Banker, March 19, 1986 | Go to article overview
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Customers Want Professional Relationships, Not Friendships

Shostack, G. Lynn, American Banker

Customers Want Professional Relationships, Not Friendships

RELATIONSHIP IS THE WORD of the hour. Everyone wants to have one with their customers. What do we mean when we say "relationship"? One of the unspoken modifiers that flashes through many customer. We want the customer to like us. We want our customers to think of us as friends, and we want employees to relate to customers on a personal level.

But let's think carefully about the assumptions we make when we say "relationship." Let's put ourselves in the customer's shoes -- the place every marketer should be. Do customers really want to be close personal friends of ours? I am unaware of any research in which customers themselves express such a desire. Is "personal" really the key to "relationships"?

Leonard L. Berry, who introduced the concept of "relationship banking," had nothing mushy in mind when he stated: "Relationship banking concerns turning indifferent customers into loyal clients; it concerns attracting, maintaining, and enhancing relationships with key market segments" (Journal of Retail Banking, June 1982). Nowhere in this definition does the word "friendly" appear, nor any emphasis on social familiarity.

We would all agree that good manners and pleasant behavior are important. No one wants to deal with a bank whose employees are surly, rude, or deliberately unhelpful. If employees need training in basic courtesy, by all means internal marketing is called for. But the issue of relationship-building goes far beyond personal demeanor. A "people-oriented" personality is not enough to create the kind of relationship that Dr. Berry describes.

As marketers, we must be aware of the fine line between personal relations and relationship-building, lest we misdirect both our strategies and the people of the organization. What customers really want isn't friendship, it's a professional relationship, based on competence, reliability, and delivery.

Customers want to deal with the people who meet their needs best. In fact, customers will accept a wide range of personalities in order to obtain the highest quality professional service. The patient who knows that he or she is in the hands of the world's best heart surgeon doesn't really care whether or not the doctor chats with him or her about golf. The customer who gets an accurate, complete answer to a question on Keoghs doesn't complain if you don't say "have a nice day." Customers expect a professional to be responsive, but they do not demand aggressive friendliness, as long as the job is well done. It's a business relationship, and the customer knows it.

From a bank's point of view, the ideal relationship is one in which customers depend and rely on us. So when we speak of building relationships, what we mean as marketers is finding ways to increase the customer's reliance and dependence. We want the customer to turn to us first when he or she has a financial question or need, and we want the customer to use our products to the exclusion of all competitors. We want the customer to feel that he or she should not take action without consulting with us.

Creating dependencies may seem cold-blooded compared with saying that we should "care" about customers. Yet when customers know they can rely and depend on a supplier, they develop strong loyalties to that supplier. They speak admiringly of that supplier. They seek to do more business with that supplier. They behave, in other words, exactly as we would wish them to.

If the objective is to build a professional relationship, we must understand what customers expect of a professional, be he or she a plumber, a banker, or a candlestick maker.

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