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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

We: About client relationships

Do these images really belong together? Yes, in that the tourism and hospitality industries are the places where many of the client-centred marketing principals advocated by Steve Yastrow in his new book: We: The Ideal Customer Relationship are expressed -- though their practical applications are very real for the construction industry, both commercial and residential.

We headed out on a boat yesterday on a Vallatera Adventures visit to Las Caletas, a private island about 45 minutes from Peurto Vallarta after sighting some whales in the Pacific Ocean. The tour organizers appreciate their market and handle it with creativity -- for the (younger) couples out for escape, this is something of a booze cruise, with an unlimited open bar -- but the operators keep things well enough organized so that families with younger and school-age children (ours included) won't feel uncomfortable.

(I especially enjoyed overhearing the rather frank observations by the young tour leader who described how sometimes his job can be hell when clients expect perfection from him, but misbehave themselves -- especially since his salary is a fraction of the money that people blowing money on the tour earn each year.)

We found about the tour through -- yes, Gecko Rent A Car -- where Adam and Denis offered us a 15 per cent discount off the tour's list price and obviously earned some commissions in the process.

As I sat on the beachfront playing Brickbrat on my Blackberry (while Eric snorkeled and Vivian sunned herself) I thought about Steve Yastrow's book We: The Ideal Customer Relationship He sent a copy to me just before I headed on vacation. Yastrow and I engaged in a dialogue a few months ago when I reported on his earlier book Brand Harmony (thanks to Sonny Lykos's introduction).

I enjoyed Yastrow's latest book, again focusing on the basic fact that selling and branding is more about relationships than transactions; and these are unique, individual and thoughtful processes over time -- that lead to the ideal situation where client and business (or groups within clients and businesses) are engaged in co-oerative projects and relationships that transcend the immediate, and work for the mutual benefit of both groups.

In business, these relationships are the opposite of the zero sum game -- and require a whole lot of special qualities and skills that allow employees to work beyond scripts, processes, and formal procedures. Each client relationship, Yastrow proposes, needs to be individualized. Branding -- the overall quality of relationship between client and company -- is not the exclusive responsibility of the marketing department -- it is at root a cultural thing where both front line employees and senior executives create a holistic environment where clients feel welcome, engaged, involved and sense their individuality is respected.

(Does this describe Gecko Rent a Car? Yes. Did Vallarta Adventures get it right -- in a different sort of way?-- Yes. What would have happened if Gecko gave a referral to an organization that paid a higher commission but delivered terrible value? And what is the relationship between Gecko and Vallarta Adventures? We don't know, but I suspect it is healthy.)

Fair enough, such good business is indeed possible, and wherever you can make it happen, ideal. I sense a relationship of this sort is developing with Web Empowerment Solutions who are presently working on our website rebuild. We got things off to a good start when I met with Gilles Cote and Shawn Taylor to discuss the terms of engagement. Impressively, we struck a deal that gives WES some useful operating cash while reducing our current IT cash expenses, and they receive a solid and powerful boost for marketing within the construction industry. In putting the deal together we thought outside the box, with some creativity and effectiveness. So far, it looks like we are getting real value here and I hope to reciprocate as the months proceed.

The challenge with We relationships is that they are time-consuming, potentially expensive, and require an incredible spirit and openness with employees and clients. And here is the big challenge with the concept. While we are all individuals and have unique personalities, not everyone is built the same way -- and many of us (myself included) are really not that good at personal interactions and relationship building. Recruiting and selecting employees with the right qualities is a real challenge and if your organization is currently full of the 'wrong type' you will have an uphill battle in changing the culture and ways of behaving.

In his book, Yastrow suggests some approaches to work around these challenges, but I really think the big issue is whether you can work through all the layers of perception and behaviour in employees and expect them to think outside their silos and relate effectively if they are not hired carefully in the first place and the overall corporate organization and structure is right.

Even then, things don't always work out so well. Enterprise Rent A Car is cited as an example of a business which gets client relationships right, but I would not compare the somewhat tacky 'friendliness' I have received at Enterprise with the real relationship I felt at Gecko.
And in the hotel business, despite all the efforts at creating systems to engage employees and managers in client-centric behaviour, we still have incidents like I experienced at the Hilton Garden Inn at JFK Airport. The hotel and service were fine if unmemorable (okay, it is an Airport hotel), but I really didn't appreciate this email from the hotel:
Dear Valued Guest,
On behalf of the team at the Hilton Garden Inn Queens /JFK Airport THANK YOU FOR STAYING WITH US! Our goal is to ensure your stay was an excellent experience. You may be receiving an email shortly from Hilton Guest Services to survey your stay; it is our hope that you score us either a 9 or a 10 in Accommodations and Service categories. If we did not meet your expectations, please feel free to reply back with your feedback as we will review each comment with my staff to improve future stays. Once again, thank you for choosing the Hilton Garden Inn Queens / JFK Airport.
This note's explicit message is: Hey, they are going to send a survey to you and we want a great score, and please don't blow the survey by answering that "we" are less than perfect!
No! That is gaming the system, and that is the sort of thing that happens too often when organizations try to set up measurement tools and structures to create the We! environment. Ironically, the thank you would have worked a whole lot better simply not mentioning the survey -- and in any case, if I were the hotel manager, I would want -- in fact welcome -- less-than-perfect results as a feedback mechanism to improve my operations. (Oh well, the manager now must deal with the consequences of this blog! I'll be interested in his response.)

So, what can you do?
  • Read Yastrow's books. They are useful.
  • Take vacations. The best way to experience customer service/branding experiences is when you are on the road (or in the air) and experience the service/hospitality industry first hand. They are in the front lines of these crucial branding and relationship-building concepts.

  • Hire carefully and with sensitivity.
  • Let your employees be themselves and don't worry too much if they do their own thing -- in fact encourage individuality. You'll find they can connect with clients much more effectively and ideally, without forcing the issue, create the true We culture that Yastrow advocates.

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