Why Customer “Relationships” Are Misunderstood


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What do you expect from the elevator or escalator where you frequently traffic? You probably want the service to be quiet, reliable and traverse up and down at just the right speed. When it is “out of order,” you grumble about the forced alternative, but rarely take out your frustration on the steely, silent mode of transportation. And, if the elevator or escalator starts to say “thank you for riding” each time you step aboard, you would likely consider this value-added feature to be intrusive and unnecessary.

In a recent CustomerThink blog entitled, “Why Customer ‘Relationships’ Are Overrated,” the author sites a Corporate Executive Board study that says a vast majority of consumers (77%) had no interest in developing a “relationship” with the businesses they patronize. Consumers or customers? There is a big difference in expectations. I am a consumer of Lexus—my expectations are for reliability and quality. But, if my car has a hiccup, I am going to deal with the folks where I am a customer—the Lexus dealership. Blogger Jon Picoult wrote, “All they [customers] want is for your front-line staff to do what they said they were going to do. All they want is for your company to make their lives easier, not harder.”

Generalizations make me real nervous. They seduce me into thinking customers are simple, all alike, and can be easily shoe horned into a “meets expectations” standard of basic satisfaction rendering top service grade a letter “C.” And using the rationale of “customers rarely get consistency” for declaring customer relationships are overrated, assumes most customers have never visited champions of consistency like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Zappos or Amazon. Which brings me right back to the elevator/escalator!

There are service providers I want to function solely as efficiently as the elevator in the office building of several of my clients. I do not want a first name relationship with the kid at the car wash. I am completely happy with the bagger not breaking my eggs and offering to carry my groceries to the car. And, if the toll booth operator I frequently see wanted my email address, I would consider him downright weird.

However, I want my plumber, accountant, dry cleaner, computer repair person, physician, electrician, barber, dentist, travel agent, attorney, housekeeper, and bartender to know me and my unique needs. I want these service providers to give me personalized, tailor-made service when I need it the way I need it. And, simply meeting my requirements as effortless as possible is not enough for this cadre of service providers.

If I cannot reach my plumber in the middle of the night when I have a “burst water pipe” emergency; he’s going to be replaced. If my barber has to ask me each time I sit in his chair how to cut my hair this time, I will no long sit in his chair. If my travel agent is not attuned to my special needs as a road warrior and unable to adapt 24/7 to my “this week NYC; next week Nicaragua” travel calendar, she is off my preferred list. And, the requirements for a relationship—that “I-know-you-and-how-you-are-unique-from-all- others-I-serve” is not about a dollar amount; it is essential for the service provided. It is not about a helpful attitude, an effortless transaction, or consistency, all of which are essential. It is about being a trusted team member! So, before you scratch “relationship” off the “must have” list for all of your customers everywhere in all circumstances, find a simple, consistent and reliable way to ask YOUR customers what they value.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


  1. Chip, thanks for making this post.

    I think you nailed it with this point towards the end:

    find a simple, consistent and reliable way to ask YOUR customers what they value.

    I think business people use the term “relationship” quite differently than customers. Companies want customers to buy, and if they do that’s a relationship.
    Value = orders/revenue

    Customers don’t tend to use the term relationship to describe their dealings with companies. But if they (we) are to be loyal to companies it still comes down to getting the value we care about.

    In some cases it’s the personal touch, like the bike shop I go to locally. In others it’s fault-free service, like my bank’s web site or ATM.

    I haven’t seen the CEB survey that was discussed, but if they just asked customers “Do you want to develop a relationship?” it doesn’t surprise me that most say no. But everyone wants value.

    As you pointed out, businesses that excel in delivering that value may in fact build a relationship!

  2. Great reading, but a few points that strike me, which overall synch with your thoughts.

    In case of the hair cut, the barber may get away with understanding the customers haircut straight off, but the ladies hair dresser…the same does not work!

    It’s just the same between people in one to one relationships..marriage even…ASK what is valued, don’t just assume !

    And one do not go through life asking one’s spouse if he/she wants to develop the relationship….one does what’s needed to find out…ditto for customer relationship

    Most relationships would excel if the care is taken to find out what is valued..and what is not!


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