Monday, October 25, 2010

It's the Relationship, Stupid.

The title of today's post is a riff on what drove Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign... This current election cycle (over)occupies my mind these days and I won't cry when it's over!

I've often joked that I started my Marketing career around the time of the abacus. My salad days at AmEx were before online marketing hit it big and when Palm Pilots were just getting popular. As much much as this ages me, I'm also thankful for not having gadgets or technology take the place of the basic learning I received.

I'm not about to launch into a speech about my early marketing days being much like walking uphill both ways in the driving snow as a schoolkid. There are many things about those days that I'm glad are over. But, I'm glad that I had to learn the basics of acquisition, brand building, relationship building, customer engagement, loyalty, etc., in seemingly rudimentary ways especially as they compare to Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, etc.

Earlier this year, I talked about "Surprise and Delight" and though I applauded the gesture from Neiman Marcus, I bemoaned the execution. The instinct to do something "just because" is a good one but how you act on the instinct is so critical because the gesture can fall flat just as it did with the Neiman Marcus example.

These thoughts are courtesy of this past Friday's #kaizenblog chat and this post by Bill Taylor about why businesses find it so hard to display simple acts of kindness. Take a moment to read it because it's quick and it's truly worth it - and please remember to come back to this humble missive. The "surprise and delight" in that example puts our well meaning friends at Neiman Marcus to shame.

More cynical people will say, "The guy needs to get those cars off of his lot!" Maybe so. But honoring the $1000 certificate, allowing him to keep the car and sending flowers are all costs out of the guy's pocket. That's a cut into margin. Moving a car off the lot at a loss doesn't help the salesman's cause too much.

Here's my favorite part:

"Success today is about so much more than just price, quality, reliability — pure economic value. It is about passion, emotion, identity — sharing your values.

Nobody is opposed to a good bottom-line deal — "cold beer at a reasonable price," in the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen, who prefers his Cadillacs pink. But what we remember and what we prize are small gestures of connection and compassion that introduce a touch of humanity into the dollars-and-cents world in which we spend most of our time."

This is exactly right. The Buick salesman's gestures of connection and compassion were distinctive precisely because they were small touches of humanity. They were homespun and completely technology free.  They're not over the top, gimmicky marketing tricks. Truly - the salesman could have done something really flashy online. He didn't even have that urge.  That's unheard of these days.

The art and science of relationship building are just as more important today than before mainly because we mistake technology and what we can do with technology as marketing. We spend more time looking at the functionality of timed tweets, Google analytics, which words are better primed for "RT" than others, attractive Facebook landing pages, etc. We forget that relationship building can take time and is borne of delivering value to others to demonstrate that we are the "real deal" and can earn their trust.

And, thankfully Jason Falls backs me up this morning.  Here's an excerpt from today's Malcolm Gladwell post:

"I’ve long said at some point the pendulum will swing back and people will realize it’s the offline, face-to-face relationships that are meaningful. Brands that find ways to move their online (weak tie) communities offline (strong tie), are the ones that will win in the long run."

Before anyone points out that I play on Twitter/Foursquare/Etc. and tag me a hypocrite - know that I value technology immensely which is one of the many reasons why I'm glad I've left my AmEx days behind. On the other hand, I value the human touch, one on one communications, understanding what drives a person business, who a good contact is for them and then delivering on the ask within the best of my ability. It's at that point that we incorporate technology on delivering the ask...  if appropriate.

I wish I could say the Buick salesman is a genius for having this personal philosophy of basic relationship building. But he's not. I'd say it's more about him having a very healthy amount of common sense... and kindness. And we could all learn a little something from him.

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef


  1. Lovely post, Parissa! And definitely a big thank you for including your #kaizenblog reference! We enjoy your presence in our community!

    The Buick salesman was remarkable and maybe that's the sad part of the story. And yet, something to celebrate when we realize that Buick trusted this person to do what he thought was best in serving the customer.

    Perhaps it is time to make a choice and slow things down with our customers. A moment to stop, see and hear that we are dealing with human beings and not an object. The challenge lies in encouraging all organizations, no matter their size, to remember we are all human and it is good business to act in a decent and respectful way.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment! I also think of Zappo's and Ritz Carlton when it comes to trusting employees and empowering them with the tools to make meaningful connections with customers. Everyone has the opportunity to become a loyal customer and brand advocate. Everyone has the opportunity to "surprise and delight" the customer. As they say, it takes more muscles to frown than to smile.

  3. Excellent post Parissa. As a networking junkie, I attended a live event this week since I need a face to face networking fix. I cannot even begin to tell you how off everyone was in their ability to conduct a meaningful, hi looking to meet/connect with you conversation. Is what I witnessed a byproduct of all the online networking or is it time for all of us to attend a networking offline 101 class.

  4. I think the rapidity of technology and the information exchange has made us all horribly impatient for quick results. Networking and relationship building can be a glacial process for some. On the other hand, it's that type of effort that produces lasting sustainable business and personal relationships!

  5. Another great post Parissa - thanks! Could this be salesman be a disciple? Meaning, could Buick have 'trained' some of this behavior into him, and is therefore now enjoying incredible success after years of dismal sales and deletion of comparable vehicle lines? I'd say its a factor, at minimum.

  6. I suppose it's possible but I've found that some of these behaviors are more "common sense" than someone training someone to send flowers, etc. The other thing to note is that Buick and Cadillac are GM brands. One salesman would never be directly encouraged to "outshine" another brand's salesman.