Customer service and customer relationships are similar but different. Here’s why customer relationships are better…

A lot of my blog posts are just my thoughts about business; my reflections about what business could and should (and shouldn’t) be.

And lately I’ve been thinking about the difference between customer service and customer relationship.

I suspect that too many businesses think they are interchangeable. But I don’t think they are.

Customer service: I tend to think of customer service as how you handle the customer before, (but especially) during, and after the sale. In many ways, customer service is transactional; it’s built around the transaction of a purchase: A customer experiences your customer service when they interact with your business — when they try to buy something, when it gets delivered to them, when they have a problem. Let’s measure customer service this way: How easy is it for a customer to get their money back when they ask for a refund?

Customer relationship: I tend to think of customer relationship as a more interactive/intimate connectedness. It’s how much your customers think of you outside of the times when they need whatever you’re selling. Customer relationship is what you do all those other times when you’re not selling. Customer relationship is not transactional at all (although it can certainly lead to more transactions). Let’s measure customer relationship this way: When was the last time your customer invited you to a barbecue or their kid’s baseball game?

HERE’S HOW CUSTOMER SERVICE AND CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIP SHOULD PLAY OUT IN YOUR BUSINESS

You should have good customer service — of course. It should be easy and enjoyable for customers to transact with you. But too many companies brag about the quality of their customer service yet never really make it special. Worse still, they don’t realize that every other business out there is also bragging about customer service (and to a customer, it all kind of looks the same). And too many companies put too much of their focus on creating positive customer service experiences and they forget about the broader customer relationship experience.

Guess what: Your ability to deliver the product or service with a smile seems exactly the same as your competitor’s ability to deliver their product or service with a smile. Your toll-free troubleshooting line seems exactly the same as your competitors’ line. Your no-questions-asked 100% money back guarantee seems exactly the same as your competitors’ guarantee.

If you want to compete on customer service, you need to be absolutely amazing in a zany “I can’t believe they’re doing that” way. You need to give the CEO’s cell-phone that she or he answers 24 hours a day even on vacation. You need to give a 200% money back guarantee. You need to not only deliver the product with a smile, you have to also deliver another free product, set them both up, and then cook the family dinner. That is the kind of customer service that you need to offer if you are going to focus on customer service: Ridiculously crazy customer service.

But likely you won’t offer that (it’s expensive and few companies do). That’s okay because you should be doing something else instead: You should be…

BUILDING A CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIP

A customer relationship is how much your customer thinks of you when they are not buying from you. It’s how often they invite you to their spouse’s birthday party or kid’s ball game.

A customer relationship is intimate. Interactive. Mutually meaningful. Sacrificial. Generous. And it needs to expand beyond the narrow confines of the conversation about your product or service.

A customer relationship looks like this: You’re a real estate agent who sold a house to a client. You also show up to help them pack boxes and put them in the back of the truck, and you pick up the tab for pizza. You send them a newsletter every quarter that doesn’t talk very much about you and your accomplishments, or even spends a lot of time talking about new houses on the market, but rather talks about the kinds of challenges and opportunities they face in their lives — raising kids, getting promoted, saving for retirement, buying a car. You stop by their house on the anniversary of their purchase every year and give them flowers or a bottle of wine. You send them birthday cards. You pay attention to their lives and call them up when something good or something bad is going on. You share your own personal challenges and wins with them. You ask a lot of questions and you savor every answer. You ask about their kid’s baseball games and you show up and cheer.

THAT is a customer relationship.

It’s the kind of interaction businesses want (although they are too busy focusing on service to realize that they’re aiming for the wrong thing).

It’s also the long game with a higher up-front cost but a very significant long-term pay-off.

Confession time. As I write this, I think of my customers and my brands. Do I have this in any of my brands? Absolutely not. I know a few things about my customers — important hobbies or spouse’s name or the number of kids… maybe. But I don’t do anything to build the relationship. So don’t read this blog post as someone who has it all together and is now meting out wisdom from atop a mountain. I’m an amateur who is chewing through my own thoughts and sharing a major failing with you.

On that note, I think I’ll sit down right now and chart out some changes in my business. I hope you’ll do the same in yours.

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