May 14, 2019

As if there was ever any doubt

By Mike Karst, Senior Partner

Side personal note: My mother passed away in the time between me writing this article and its publication, and what my family experienced in the days after her death was so profound I went back and made some additions to the article, which you can read below. The outpouring of support we received not only from family and friends, but also customers, was unexpected and blew us away. It is the perfect testament to the tremendous power of relationships—both personal and professional, and how sometimes they cross over.

Our way-of-life is becoming increasingly digital—the world is literally at our fingertips, our lives controlled with thumb taps on tiny screens. 

Technology makes it possible to almost never have direct, in-real-life contact with customers. But at what expense? How does the reliance on digital communication affect the relationships between product and service providers and their customers? It’s feasible that a farmer could complete a day’s work without having to talk to a single expert. Farmers can troubleshoot a mechanical issue, place a $100,000 herbicide order, and scout their fields for pest infestations, all with a few thumb taps on their smartphone.

Call me “old school,” but I believe direct contact is—and always will be—an essential component to any business relationship. Occasionally you need to look your customers in the eye. Shake hands. Show them you’re human, and remember they are, too. 

In today’s world where texts and shares and FaceTiming seem to be the primary forms of communication, it feels easier than ever to “connect” with each other. But are these connections really all that meaningful to our customers? A retweet is not a relationship. Just because a customer likes your FaceBook post doesn’t mean they care about you or even know you.

What Makes a Good Relationship?

The reality is we have fewer face-to-face interactions, so relationship-building today takes a different kind of effort. But the fundamentals are still the same.

If your customer answers the phone on the first ring—even though their caller ID says it’s you who’s calling—that’s a sign of a good relationship.

Technology may enable more connections, but it’s still up to us to nurture those connections into relationships. This is what makes good businesses—it always has, and always will.

So how do you get there?

Be deliberate with relationship goals. It’s normal to approach a new customer with budgets, forecasts, and sales strategies, but when have you ever put a relationship action plan into place? Relationships can be your most powerful strategic advantage. Create an environment to prioritize and cultivate them.

Stay in the trenches with them. There was a farmer we worked with recently whose favorite dealer was not the closest in proximity. When those in-season catastrophes occurred, as they do, he knew he could call this particular dealer day or night. So that’s who he chose to do business with.

Genuinely care. Your approach must be authentic. You have to be both intentional AND genuine. Trust is earned in real life. And, like my colleague Nancy said in her article on due diligence, you can’t fulfill items on a checklist and call it a relationship. You must use gut feel and authenticity.

Make it personal. Every customer is unique and must be treated that way. And if you treat them more like a person than a number or transaction, they’ll do the same for you. My three brothers and I all work in roles involving customer and client service. When my mother passed away earlier this month, we overwhelmingly felt the power of personal connections with customers. More than a third of the 400 people attending our mother’s services were customers or work colleagues of my brothers and me. They traveled in from half a dozen states. One brother’s fertilizer dealer drove more than four hours to be there. Twenty different retailers sent flowers. If there was any question whether relationships matter in business, it was certainly on display last week; and it made an impact on my family that none of us will ever forget.

Communicate well. Listen more and talk less. Respond when they reach out to you. Picking up the telephone and calling your customer makes a much more meaningful connection than a series of automated emails with canned messages. Those serve a purpose, but they are no match for real-life conversation. You can’t listen and give advice through an email message.

Treat them like a customer you’d like to keep. Relationships are built on trust and commitment, and if you think about your relationships outside of work, you probably spend time with people who are reliable and bring something to the relationship. Relationships are less important if you’re treating the customer as a one-time transaction. But if your intent is repeat business, think about the “win-win” that accomplishes mutual gain. Your customer must see benefit beyond just a product or service, no matter how remarkable your product might be.

Build your team with the right kind of people. Technical skills and expertise are extremely important, but don’t discount the value of the qualities that support strong customer relationships. Make sure your interview process includes assessment of the “softer,” more interpersonal skills that help relationships thrive—strong communication and listening skills, conflict navigation, and emotional intelligence are a few examples. Even having a good handle on mobile technologies and using proper email etiquette are critical given the way we interact with each other most often nowadays. Hire people who already demonstrate these characteristics, then continue developing them within your teams.

Where to Focus

One challenge is identifying the relationships that need nurturing. Keeping all relationships thriving is a juggling act that may be more art than science, but it is beneficial to study existing relationships to better understand what they need to grow … and which ones are worth investing in.

In an age where data rules and the faster we move to a decision the better, let’s not lose sight of really seeing the person inside the customer. We have access to more information and can make more connections faster than ever before. But is information overload preventing us from seeing the forest through the trees?

Meaningful, real-life connections give relationships staying power. They help teams work together more productively. It takes extra time and effort, but believe me, it’s well worth it in the long run.

If you would like to explore how to identify and nurture the right relationships, contact Mike Karst at 901.753.0470 or