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Choose customers like you choose your friends

Intimate customer relationships last a lifetime

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

The great thing about close friends is that you share a certain level of intimacy. You can say almost anything and they’ll understand. If you have a problem, they’ll help you solve it. If they see you headed in a wrong direction, they’ll help you set a new course. You don’t even have to ask. In fact, my mother used to say, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” As it turns out, the same holds true for customers—only in this case, the intimacy you have with your customers tells you how profitable you are. Or, at least it’s a key factor in determining your profitability.

This is a good time of year to reflect, and I’ve been mulling over the concept of customer intimacy since early November when I heard Dan Burns, CEO of Accuvant, say that his company has experienced 40 percent year-over-year growth since its founding in 2002, while maintaining 85 percent of its clients. I wonder how many companies can claim an 85 percent retention rate; and what does it take to achieve it?

First of all, many people don’t realize that we can choose our customers, just like we choose our friends. We’re usually so happy to close a sale that we don’t think about who we’re inviting into our lives. Unbelievably, some companies even pressure their sales reps to close every sale they can, or risk being pushed out. Whining, complaining customers are depressing—as are excessively demanding ones. Who would want them? They eat up energy, lower morale and use up precious resources that could be directed toward building the meaningful relationships that help a business thrive and grow.

The difference between focus and intimacy

Focusing on your customers to create satisfaction and delight may be enough, as long as your competitors don’t copy you. When you are customer focused, you grow your business by: providing good customer service, understanding your customer’s needs, developing appropriate and responsive products and services, communicating frequently and building relationships. Achieving these basics can give you a temporary competitive advantage, and even please some of your undesirable customers, but all of this usually can’t sustain your business over the long term.

Becoming customer intimate means going one giant step further and making a business strategy decision that requires leadership attention and organization-wide alignment. It means that you need to become more selective about who you serve, and invest in understanding your customers on a deeper level. It means establishing multi-level relationships with your customers that give you greater insight into their organizations and the ability to develop end-to-end solutions on multiple levels. You see your customers’ problems and anticipate their needs before they do themselves; and your solutions create value in ways your customers would never have expected. They become totally engaged in their relationship with you and consider you an indispensable business partner—and a loyal friend. With customer intimacy, you create a sustainable competitive advantage that no one can touch.

According to Gallup, when both your customers and employees are successfully engaged, you “experience a 240 percent boost in performance-related business outcomes compared to organizations with neither engaged employees nor engaged customers.” What does it take to get that kind of premium?

Becoming customer intimate

Spend some time categorizing your customers into three tiers: (1) highly profitable customers you love working with; they love working with you and would leave your relationship only under dire circumstances; (2) those who are profitable, don’t cause problems, and with a little attention could move into tier-one relationships; (3) those who for a variety of reasons are not a fit for your products, services or culture.

Define what makes your ideal, tier-one customer and look for more of them. Figure out what your tier-three customers are costing you and let some or all of them go—not an easy decision to make considering the effort it took to get them. Finally, decide how many customer levels you want to serve and what level of service you want to provide each tier. Learn from your mistakes and select and serve your customers accordingly.

Becoming customer intimate requires the full commitment of your organization and a deep investment in your customers. Make sure you have the internal structure to deliver on your promise and that your customers have the capability to compensate you fully for your investment in them.

You know that good-all-over feeling you get when you spend time with close friends, and the deep satisfaction that comes when they rely on you for anything that comes up. Customer intimacy reaches that level. Rather than simply focusing on your customers, you capture their hearts and minds and serve each of them with a passion that exceeds their expectations.

You can spend a season with your customers, or a lifetime with them. Choose the ones you’d want as friends. You and they will benefit enormously.

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