Why We Should Care About Customer Relationships

From my perspective, journeys imply a beginning and an end. But I see relationships forming differently than that. To me, relationships are a type of lifecycle or a spiral. They include shared wins and challenges that build trust through communication. And this process creates a deeper relationship. The alternative includes broken promises and lies that dissolve trust, destroying any relationship that existed. Either way, relationships aren’t built through a linear journey. They are built on cycles that spiral towards closeness or spin-out and diverge towards separation.

As an example, let’s look at how this works in your personal life. Let’s say you discover a friend—either through a group, other friends, whatever. You learn information about that person and share information with him or her about yourself. You then experience this person through activities and conversations—like having dinner or coffee together, going to movies, taking trips—all the things that friends do. You solve problems together—your friend may have a challenge and you help him or her work through it mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically. After some time of things going well, something may happen where you need this friend to emotionally support you through a life changing or traumatic event—like a parent being in the hospital, a pet dying, or some other trying experience. And you ask your friend to help. Your friend may or may not step up to the task. If your friend steps up, your relationship deepens not only because you build trust, but you share more connected, emotional experiences. Your friend demonstrated to you that you can rely on him or her in times like this. If your friend does not step up, you either stay in that same friendship zone, or, because expectations weren’t met, the relationship dissolves and it devolves to a breakup.

The same is true for companies and customers.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Universities. A prospective student goes through a journey to select, attend, and experience a university. But after graduation, that student no longer has the same relationship with that university. He or she is now an alumna. That’s a new type of relationship, a new type of status. Now this relationship does build upon the original university experience. If that experience was pleasant and memorable, then someone would be more open to participate as an alumna and actively support the university—through donations, activities, and volunteering. That person would want to encourage prospective students to attend and have an equally great university experience. However, if that person’s university experience was mediocre or poor, then that person may have reservations about participating in an alumni association or donating to the school. They don’t want to share that experience with others or encourage others to have it.

Further, a new graduate may have reservations about being active in an alumni association because he or she wants to focus on their career for a few years before returning to help the university. He or she may not feel that he has a valid story to share until he or she achieves success or feels they can talk practically to how the university in fact truly helped their career. 

Now you could say that the alumni journeys are completely different journeys, or they are journeys that are an extension to the original student path. I don’t see that. I see the alumni experience as building a deeper relationship, a new relationship layer, upon an existing relationship with that university. It becomes a literal graduation from being a student to becoming a donor or volunteer. There is a new journey or path to follow when converting to become an alumni and there needs to be a different strategy created to build that relationship. Becoming an active alumni offers a different value than what it means to be a student. 

Now that same graduate could additionally get a job at the university as staff, administration, or faculty. That is also a different relationship building upon the original student relationship, allowing the graduate to build closer ties with that university. If that person leaves their university job for whatever reason, the relationship would naturally shift so that person would become an active or inactive alumni. Now, depending on the reason for departure, that alumni lifecycle could devolve for that person if the university made a decision that he or she doesn’t agree with or there was some other upset during the departure, causing distrust in the relationship with the university in general. 

As another example, let’s look at a purchase experience where there is a VIP loyalty program. So, let’s say someone purchases a product, not just once or twice but three to four times. Usually that is when someone truly converts—after the second or third purchase. So, let’s say your company determines that it takes someone four purchases before they regularly purchase from you. You then design a program that invites someone to become a VIP after five purchases. That invitation process would be considered a new relationship lifecycle, building upon the existing relationship that formed after that first set of purchases. It’s a deeper relationship, but the individual needs to understand the value of what is being offered in this new program.

Because three times is a charm…let’s look at another example.

I worked with a professional organization that had multiple conversion points. They had event attendance, membership, and volunteering. We saw attending events as the first phase of conversion. After attending a few events, we’d promote membership. Volunteering was always open as an option. Sure, some would become a volunteer right away after attending a handful of events, but that was rare. I thought originally that conversion happened when someone got a membership and that was the end of the journey. But the organization president considered a complete conversion to the organization happening only when someone volunteers. Volunteering fosters a deeper relationship with the organization because you aren’t just paying to be part of a group, you are actively helping to make the group successful. 

So, what is this lifecycle? As I describe it in my book, Revenue or Relationships, Win Both, there are four steps.

Pre-purchase: This is the same as the very early stage of the buyer’s journey, when customers are first identifying their problem and discovering solutions. Often, customers don’t identify a problem clearly on their own. They do this by investigating solutions and reverse-engineering the problem they have. This phase includes a lot of discovery, learning, and "ah-ha" moments for the customer, who will identify their challenges through customer stories that describe similar problems that they are having. This is the first introduction someone has with your company to start the relationship.

Purchase decision: By this stage, customers have realized that they have a problem and need a solution. Often at this step they will research competitor solutions and understand the market landscape. They are looking to find the right solution for their problem.

After a customer purchases a product, technically his or her experience branches to two areas: the post-purchase experience and the product experience. In the diagram we keep it linear for simplicity, but these are both related, yet different, experiences.

Product experience: The product needs to solve the problem. And the experience of the product needs to meet certain customer expectations regarding value and worth. Further, the product experience builds community by allowing customers to share their successes with each other regarding how the product or service improved their life in some way.

Post-purchase: This stage includes warranties, guarantees, pricing, and support. These are all experience factors that could make a difference from a customer referring your company and product to someone else, buying a refill or replacement (which is often similar to going through the entire lifecycle again), or dropping out of the relationship. The post-purchase experience further builds a relationship between your customers and your company.

Essentially, this relationship centers around logistics, payment, promotions, or collaborations to bring some type of benefit to the world, an industry, or something else.

This is also when customers write reviews and use the product actively.

Keep in mind that a customer can enter the relationship at any time, fall out of it at any time, or remain in a step forever.

Why only four steps and not six or eight like there are in other models? Four keeps the process simple enough to consider how a customer experiences deciding to work with a company. The evaluation process restarts with refills, repurchase, or a deeper relationship decision, such as participating in a loyalty program (that could be a type of new product). Loyalty, engagement, and becoming a fan reflect a deeper relationship state that happens post-purchase, while the customer continues to use the product. I wouldn’t consider it a separate process step; it’s another lifecycle iteration that represents building a relationship and defining value.

That’s why I find it fascinating to understand how customers are motivated to take the next step in a relationship. What information does a person need to realize that he or she has a problem? What facts or feelings will help a customer realize that your solution is right for them? What type of support mechanisms need to be established so the customer feels comfortable making the purchase? How can the product experience continue consistently through the purchase and support experiences? What is the true problem that the customer is trying to solve? How can you help customers solve it and ultimately provide them value?

Before you create a journey, you can use this framework to help develop a general strategy for interacting with customers to build a relationship with them. What do you want to achieve at each step? What are customers thinking during that step?

How are they motivated? By looking at the complete picture, you can consider how each group will respond in each step of the process to get them more engaged with your company and focus on building that relationship rather than focusing on making a sale or completing a task. And by the nature of the lifecycle being in a circle, you are looking at how your actions post-purchase impact a customer’s decision to choose to work with your company again to solve their problem.

These four steps are the same whether the relationship goes deeper or not. Someone could get stuck in a step and not move forward. And that’s ok. Or someone could go through a lifecycle for a deeper step. And that’s fine too.

In the book, I outline an 8-step process using this relationship lifecycle to define communication strategies for your target audience. That will be outlined in a different set of videos coming soon. This set will help you determine the type of tactics to include in each phase to build that relationship. The tactics themselves encourage different layers of relationships to form based on the dynamics they create. More on that in each step of this journey.  

I hope this was helpful. Thanks!