Do you need to be ‘friends’ with your customers in order to succeed in business?

This was the question which came to mind last week when discussing with a chief executive about how he could improve customer satisfaction.

The challenge his organisation is facing is that 18% of customers say that they wouldn’t use the services of his company again. Of course, from a positive perspective, that does mean that 82% say that they would – but what impact does that 18% have – especially when we take into account the ripple effect of negative word of mouth communication?

As a follow up question, I asked the chief executive how he maintained a recorded 100% satisfaction level with the service that he personally provided to clients. His immediate response was that he was ‘friends’ with his clients. This set me to thinking, would it be possible for a company to identify ‘friendship’ as a company value and ask all employees to live that out in practice?

Having now done quite a bit of reading and thinking about this there is a problem with the word ‘friendship’ due to the connotations it has in our day-to-day lives. Friendship is an ‘authentic’ relationship between two people, and one which is typically extended over a significant period of time, if not a lifetime. The problem for someone who comes into contact with a client when providing a service, which may never be continued, is that the notion of a ‘true’ friendship being created simply from a service delivery interaction is very unlikely.

That is not to say that recurring business cannot be generated by a relationship which eventually becomes a true friendship, but to begin every relationship with a customer with the idea that you’re going to end up ‘best buddies’ is inauthentic – and people can smell inauthentic behaviour from miles away!

So if ‘friendship’ might be a longer-term goal, how might we represent my friend’s behaviour with clients, which would close the 18% gap? Let’s take it for granted that all elements of service delivery are of high standard and that there are no aspects of performance that puts people off the company. Now this may be something of a leap, as there will always be the unexpected and unavoidable things that happen to impact negatively on customer satisfaction. However, it’s worth recognizing that some people can even overcome such negative service outcomes – due to their ability to make ‘friends’ with their clients.

So if ‘friendship’ isn’t the correct word what might it be? The answer, I would suggest, would appear to be ‘rapport’.

Rapport is derived from the French word ‘rapporter’ – to carry something back, and describes when two, or more people are ‘in sync’ with each other or ‘on the same wavelength’.

Interestingly not a lot of research has been carried out in this area, but what has been done has shown conclusively that rapport has a very positive impact upon the evaluation of goods and services. Customers actually rated rapport as being more important than special deals or discounts in deciding whether or not to use the service again, especially in those services where there is a high degree of customer-employee interaction takes place. In fact research shows that rapport has as much to of an impact upon customer evaluation as the outcome of the service.

Rapport appears to have two key components, ‘enjoyable interactions’ and ‘personal connections’. It can be captured in that well-used term of a doctor’s ‘bedside manner’. The doctor is there, above all, to deliver an outcome, i.e. to cure you of your illness or affliction. Yet we all prefer to be treated by that doctor who seems to ‘understand’ us, and with whom we feel a personal connection. The doctor has an interest in us beyond us as medical case, and in so doing we give our trust and confidence.

In a similar fashion, we can all think of those teachers who immediately established a ‘rapport’ with us as students. They took an interest in us beyond the subject area. They expressed an interest in our feelings and opinions, and appeared open, and interested in us as individuals. They made good eye contact with us, and showed a personal sensitivity to our needs, through their capacity to empathise with us in a genuine and warm manner. They exuded positivity and good humour, and always seemed to have time for us.

In return we felt in tune with them and built an emotional tie with them. We trusted them, and they gained our loyalty and confidence. Of course, this also required the teacher to know their subject and have the capacity to help us extend our knowledge and our skills, but those outcomes were often dependent upon their ability to establish a rapport with us, which we saw to be an authentic connection.

As a teacher and school leader with over 25 years experience of working in schools, I know the vital importance of a teacher’s capacity to build rapport, and without exception the best were always those who had that critical ability.

So if ‘rapport’ is potentially the missing ingredient in closing the 18% gap, is it possible for an organisation to encourage and even ‘teach’ the capacity to build rapport.

My short answer to my own question is absolutely yes, but the first step would be to explore what rapport looks like in the industry in question. What are the behaviours of existing employees who can build this rapport? Is there a difference in customer experience and satisfaction between staff who can establish high levels of rapport, and those who are more focused upon ‘just delivering the service’? I have no doubt that the company would identify a positive correlation between rapport and customer evaluations of the service.

So my final questions are, could an organisation identify ‘Rapport’ as one of their company values, along with more expected values such as ‘Integrity’? Having done so, could they then set out to encourage, enable and support all employees, wherever they work in the organisation, to live up to that value and manifest those behaviours, both to customers and colleagues? Once again my unequivocal answers to both questions would have to be – yes! (and what a place it would be to work).

NB  The Chief Executive mentioned in this article has given his permission for me to publicly explore this issue on condition that his company is not named. 


Por Don Ledingham, Chief Executive at Ceannas

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