Are Your Customer Relationships Also Sustainable?

The word “sustainability” has come to be used in many contexts to describe our capacity to endure in the longer term. For our world environment, it is used to define how we are able to maintain and responsibly manage our limited resources so that they remain diverse and productive over time. And, of course, you cannot talk about sustainability without accepting that it also encompasses a principle of stewardship, or our ability to take care of needs.

You may be asking, “Have I gone off my tree-hugging rocker? What’s all this about the green environment?”

It strikes me that the concept of sustainability also applies to businesses, and the responsible way in which they nurture their relationships with customers, (and anyone else involved in their business, including employees and suppliers.) And in the same way that as a human race we seem unable to take care of our ecological environment responsibly, we seem to be unable to secure the future of our businesses by taking care of customers responsibly.

Picture this scene: I am busy addressing an audience of about sixty really senior executives at a conference, and one of them puts his hand up and says, “But Aki, our customers really love call centres.” I was so shocked I could hardly answer. As diplomatically as I could, I asked how he had come to that conclusion, and he said that customers knew that it made products cheaper, and they could help themselves to information which was “empowering” for them. Oh yeah? It’s like saying to your kids, “Let’s have a picnic in our garden because we can’t go to Hartebeespoort Dam anymore because it has been poisoned.”

So what’s it going to take to get back into a sustainable relationship with customers this year? I think there are a few really important priorities.

So work on getting the basics right…

  • Ask your customers what they really want and need, and how they want to be served. What do they want in general? What are they trying to accomplish (or avoid)? Why did they choose you instead of your competition? What are their priorities and preferences? Different customers want different things and it’s your job to find out.
  • Tell your customers what to expect with honesty and integrity, and without all the hype. Once you know what your company does best, compare that list with what your customers want. These two lists should overlap. (If they don’t, you have a problem!) Then use this knowledge to tell your story about why they should buy from you.
  • Make it easy for your customers to give you feedback, especially when they are disappointed. It’s not only about getting orders, but more about what happened afterwards, because that will determine if they come back. Get a lot of feedback of exactly what it’s like dealing with your business. Use as many sources as you can: collect direct comments from customers from as many sources as you can, observe their behaviour, (not only what they do, but also what they don’t do,) talk to your employees and brainstorm ideas with them, use outsiders like members of your family, see what other businesses do, and use Google – a lot.
  • Then act on what your customers tell you. All that information is useless if you don’t act, and be brave in your actions. You won’t be able to respond to everything, but make sure that you do the important stuff. Start small and experiment with a small sample of customers. And also trust your gut: no Apple products would be around today if the company had trusted market research. I repeat, be brave – but don’t be stupid.
  • Always, always work on making it easy to do business with you. Ask yourself this question: How often to customers leave a business because of terrible service and chronic mistakes? Probably many more than those that return because they are delighted. You need to constantly be challenging the things that make it more difficult to do business with you: the physical effort, the mental effort, the emotional effort, and the time effort. Kill all the “dumb contacts” in your business. Don’t bug them with your problems. When their house is on fire, all your customers want is a hose. Please don’t add to their pain.
  • And finally, constantly find innovative and creative ways to build relationships and add value for your customers. It doesn’t have to cost anything, and, in fact, it’s always the little meaningful acts of kindness that seem to make the biggest difference. To end with, and example: The guys at Build It (building supplies company that is part of the Spar Group,) recently discovered that customers have the same questions about “How to…” They commissioned a series of one-minute videos that are very small in bandwidth, and that take customers through the basics of things like wiring a plug or mixing concrete. Since most South Africans now own a smartphone, this means that for about R1 you can download a video from a library of dozens, and also pick up the corresponding leaflet at the store. Headache solved, and customers love it. You can see how a combination of all of the hints above can make a big difference to your customers.

Oh, and by the way, yes, I do hate call centres and yes, I am a tree-hugger and proud of it!

About Leadership Launchpad

Aki Kalliatakis is the Managing Partner of The Leadership LaunchPad, a business focused on custome loyalty and radical marketing. Their work has broadened to include all aspects of service, marketin and sales, which are aimed at creating the highest levels of customer loyalty. Aki Kalliatakis assist companies to implement customized service and loyalty strategies, and is often invited to talk t various groups, and conduct seminars, workshops and training courses for his clients. They focu on better customer service and delighting your customers. They do this by delivering a credibl consulting service in all aspects of customer relationships, customer management, customer loyalt and customer retention in a manner which delights and thrills clients and delegates.