In conversation with a tech client a couple of weeks ago, she told me of the need to increase the development and skills of her Customer Relationship Managers. To make sure that I was familiar with this type of role, I looked up the definition. TechTarget defines customer relationship management as ‘a term that refers to practices, strategies, and technologies that companies use to manage and analyze customer interactions and data throughout the customer lifecycle – with the goal of improving business relationships with customers, assisting in customer retention, and driving sales growth‘.
What skills are needed to deliver this definition? Most organizations focus on the first part of the definition – developing skills and knowledge for the practices, strategies, and technology. But frequently, that alone, doesn’t get the best, or desired, results. The key to achieving great sustainable results is to focus on the middle word of the role title – relationship. Focusing on the relationship enables the delivery of the goals – better customer relationships and better customer retention – both that then drive sales growth.
The relationship skills are just like any other set of skills – they can be learned. Some believe that these skills are encoded into people’s DNA and – that they missed the coding. This isn’t true! Some people, due to their experiences, may have a head start Ð but anyone who is willing to learn them, can learn them and get better results from their relationships.
In my experience, with both internal and external customers, the relationship ‘must-have’ skills include:
- The ability to quickly establish a relationship with the customer.
- The ability to not talk, and just listen because the customer needs to talk.
- The ability to stay in the conversation when the customer is upset – not to argue with them, not to shut them down, but to give them the space to express how they are feeling.
- The ability to resolve conflicts in a timely, effective manner – not just have disagreements. Note – this doesn’tnecessarily mean win-win.
- The ability to quickly assess when resolution is not possible, and the issue needs to be escalated to a higher level of authority with either the customer or their own organization.
- The ability to genuinely acknowledge progress to the customer. This is what fuels everyone to go back and try again, or to keep going when it seems like you’ll never get to the end result.
Once the skills are built and the relationships established, an interaction/communication framework must be put into place to support, and maintain, the relationship. This includes:
- An initial day onsite with the customer – just to meet the people that you’ll be interacting with. The goal should be relationship building not nailing down the latest version of the project plan or discussing the next up-sell.
- Regular communication with the customer – never leave them wondering where you are or what is happening.
- Regular face-to-face meetings. The high-tech tools are wonderful – but they don’t replace ‘the touch’. And, they make the quality of ‘the touch’ even more critical. If you have regular person-to-person contact with someone, confidence is built and assumptions are less likely to be made. Trust increases – making it easier to resolve the issues that come up.
These can be challenging in today’s cost minimization, or travel ban, atmosphere. However, what are the costs of having unresolved conflicts with a customer? At best, response is slowed down so that costs increase and everything takes more time. At worst, the unresolved conflict can cause a rift that leads to not just loss of that customer’s business, but damage to your reputation and future business as well.
Developing the relationship skills and building the framework in which to use them also builds the ability to ‘read the customer’. You are able to hear what is said, what is not said, and how the customer is feeling. Customers, in turn, feel both heard and understood. Then, even if the conflict can’t be resolved to their complete satisfaction – you will hear them say, ‘I didn’t get everything that I wanted, but I was treated well.’ That supports customer retention and the building of business.
So – for the strategies, practices, and technology Ð know them, but redirect some of the focus. In today’s environment, whether we like it or not, no matter what our specific job responsibilities are, we are all also in the relationship business. Emphasizing the’relationship’ in a customer relationship manager role truly lays the path for customer retention, sustainable results, and revenue growth.