You Can’t Shine A Sneaker

Earlier this week, after five consecutive days without any Internet access, my service was finally restored.

Until that happened, I didn’t realize just how intertwined the daily running of my business is with the Internet, and I don’t mind telling you that when they finally got it working again on Tuesday, I felt like a fish (penguin?) dropped back into a bucket of water.

And what a nightmare it was finding my way back.

Even after proving to my Internet service provider that it was a problem on their end and not mine (I took my computer to another location and it worked fine), it still took another 3 phone calls and conversations with 9 (no kidding) more people to get somebody out to my office to do the fix (which in the end took just 10 minutes). All in all, about a full day of my time.

As angry as I was while it was happening, when it was all over I started thinking about relationship marketing, and how my Internet service provider could put this concept to good use.

Don’t you think this company could benefit from a program that gave it a stronger connection with its customers? Don’t you think that a systematic, comprehensive, well thought out approach to developing strong customer relationships would help this company reduce customer turnover and increase profitability in the process?

Me neither. As my friend Tom Cagney likes to say, “You can’t shine a sneaker.”

As you know from reading these columns, I’m (annoyingly) fanatical about the value of creating and developing strong relationships with customers and prospective customers. People do business with people they like, trust and are familiar with, and strong relationships will lower your acquisition costs, shorten your sales cycle, reduce customer turnover and create a competitive advantage that only grows stronger over time. It’s a simple, scaleable, inexpensive and frankly, pleasant way to build your business.

But (important point coming up here), it only works if you are providing good service to begin with. You can’t cover up lousy performance by working on relationships.

If your service stinks, an enewsletter that demonstrates your expertise and keeps your name in front of customers is insulting. If your service stinks, incenting customers to “tell their friends” only serves to spread the word about how bad you are. If your service stinks, establishing a customer loyalty program is a waste of time. If your service stinks, well, you get the idea.

With traditional mass marketing and promotion (TV, newspaper, radio) poor performance can (at least temporarily) be offset by spending money on things which reinforce your brand.

The phone company (to name just one example) spends millions of dollars each year on “feel good” advertising. They run wonderful ads that depict wonderful phone company people providing wonderful phone company experiences, even though nobody on the face of the planet — not customers and not phone company staff — believes this fiction. Even so, seen through the repetitive blur of a TV screen, the ads serve to dull our negative memories and at least partially replace them with an upbeat feeling about the company.

With relationship marketing however, reality doesn’t get covered up, it gets amplified. When you rely on orchestrated word of mouth and person to person interactions to grow your business, news of actual customer experiences spreads quickly and broadly. Perfect if you’re doing a good job; death if you’re not.

Here’s the Bottom Line: If you’re thinking about looking for ways to leverage your existing relationships as a way to grow your business, first make sure that you’ve got something worth shining a light on. Only then does it make sense to focus on relationships.

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