“Relationship” Marketing

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My post earlier this week generated a lot of discussion about misguided attempts at relationship marketing. Here are some of the examples that were raised (I’ll summarize from the comments):

  • T-mobile birthday card (with balloon): Described as an “expensively produced standard letter,” the birthday greeting reached a customer with a record of service issues and it arrived late! The customer’s reaction? Not impressed — probably not upset enough to quit T-mobile, but upset enough to blog about it. (example from Graham Hill)
  • Pet birthday card from insurance company: According to Gwynne Young, who submitted the comment, “The card wasn’t edible and it didn’t squeak. So it went in the recycling bin. And far from the warm fuzzy feeling I’m sure the company meant to give me, I was left with a feeling of disgust.”
  • Got you back: “A major electronics retailer regularly sent a birthday card to individuals from a database of prospective customers. One recipient was so incensed over this invasion of his privacy that he took action. After a little Internet sleuthing, he found the name of the company’s CEO, and then found out his wife’s name and HER birthday. Then he sent the CEO’s wife a birthday card, and asked her how she felt about receiving the card, including the obvious insincerity of the sentiment inside the card. The program was immediately pulled.” (example from Andrew Rudin)


Now, let me share a couple other examples with you which had a totally different effect.

  • Recognizing a personal milestone: When Scotiabank customers pay their final mortgage payment, the bank sends out a letter thanking the customer for her business and congratulating her on reaching the milestone. Internally, bank employees have dubbed the letter, “the wedding invitation,” because it is printed on fancy stock and doesn’t include the typical marketing speak, colorful logos, or offers. Two weeks later, the branch follows up with a phone call: again congratulations, thanks for business, anything we can help you with in the future (no pressure, no pitch)… According to individuals I have interviewed at Scotiabank, this program has yielded an incremental balance lift of $500 per contact (that adds up).
  • Birthday greetings from Bill: For as long as I can remember, I have received birthday cards from Bill. The cards were always handpicked and contained a personal message from Bill. I had never met Bill. Who was he? He was my grandfather’s financial advisor. My sisters and my cousins all got cards from Bill. And, when several of us had enough means of our own, we too became Bill’s clients.
  • Mom loves the holiday wine and cheese: My mom (a science professor at William and Mary), is very skeptical of marketing (and doctors). She doesn’t fall for anything. That said, she literally gushed over the wine and cheese basket that she received last Christmas from her financial advisor. The basket came with a card and a personal note. She knew it was “marketing,” but it succeeded in giving her the “warm and fuzzies” nonetheless.

What’s different about these examples and what works?
The examples that work are:



  • Between parties that have a significant relationship: What kind of relationship do you have with your mobile company or insurance carrier? Probably not a personal one.
  • Not a marketing pitch: What!?! Can marketing be subtle? In fact, Scotiabank’s restraint in foregoing the glossy insert or list of latest offers significantly contributes to making these communications more real and sincere for the recipient.
  • Personal and sincere: . Scotiabank’s restraint contributes to the sincerity of the message as do the handwritten notes or even just the signature from the financial advisor

Relationships result from significant and sincere interactions
Maybe we’ve all gone a little too cuckoo over the term “relationship” marketing. Let’s be clear, relationship marketing IS NOT blasting a message to a semi-targeted list. And, I don’t think I’m in the minority here, but most customers really don’t want to have a relationship with the company they buy their toilet paper from.
Here are my top line recommendations to would be relationship marketers:

  • Only be personal when you have a right to be: I plan to crack a bottle of champagne if I ever pay off a mortgage! And, I wouldn’t be upset at all if my bank sent me a card recognizing my achievement. However, if the envelope was stuffed with glossy pitches aimed at securing more of my money, I think I would be a tad perturbed.
  • Look for opportunities that positively impact customer experience: Think about marketing from the perspective of service. Part of marketing, by it’s nature, will always be to inform but more marketers need to seek our opportunities to offer proactive service and pleasantly surprise their customers. Rather than sending an insincere birthday card, another wireless carrier called customers that had experienced a series of dropped calls to APOLOGIZE and offer a break on the monthly bill.
  • Expand your definition of “relationship marketing” to include community: What can a firm that doesn’t have a substantial — or even direct – relationship with its customers do? Recognize that it’s not about the toilet paper! Take a look at P&G’s Home Made Simple. Note that the site isn’t simply hawking products — in fact, you won’t even see a single product above the fold. Customers get tips on managing their household, decorating, and healthy living as well as coupons to try new products (but, again, the product marketing appears secondary). P&G gets valuable market research information and a group of customers that are convinced that the P&G is genuinely interested in them. Del Monte’s social community of dog lovers is another good example of how a firm can engage and build relationships and gain insights that allow the company to better understand customers and innovate (see the case study).


Let’s gather some more examples
I’d love to further peel apart the good examples from the bad so, please, add comments here or send me your examples as well your reaction (positive or negative).

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great blog, Elana!

    A quick example from my family’s experience… When we moved into our town, someone recommended a dentist. So we started going there, even though it’s a 30 minute drive and there are plenty of dentists closer. That shows the power of recommendations, from people you trust.

    What’s special about our dentist? Well, he certainly keeps up with the latest techniques and technology. But what’s far more memorable are the people there. The staff is friendly and seem to genuinely like their work. And we get personal (not personalized) cards at birthdays, with handwritten notes signed by the staff.

    Sure, there’s a system at work here, but it’s done in a personal and authentic way that doesn’t come across as marketing. The problem with much of what is called “relationship marketing,” as you pointed out, is there really isn’t a relationship. It’s just a fancy phrase for personalized direct marketing, with no real meaning behind it.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  2. I think you’re absolutely right. As a follow-up to the pet birthday card, when my dog died, I actually would have liked a condolence card from the same pet insurance company after I called to close the account. I was grieving so much, it would have been nice to have gotten even a short note. Instead, then, I got a form letter inviting me to reurn if I saw the opportunity in the future. I have two dogs now, and neither is covered by that company.

    Gwynne Young, Managing Editor, CustomerThink

  3. The examples cited tell us that negative reactions from prospects are a tocsin that is often ignored. Today’s technology-enamored marketers are far more likely to say “Let’s do this because we can,” than first to ask “How will this communication be perceived?” or, as Elana points out, “Have we earned the trust required to communicate in this way?”

    The detachment that cyberspace offers compounds the supposed impunity that some marketers assign to themselves, and threatens to numb all of us to the empathy that we should have–whether our communication is to 1 or 100,000.

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