03 Nov Don’t Backtrack on the Relationship
Building strong relationships is both an important component of customer experience and a positive result for your business. But what happens if you backtrack on the relationship? It’s not good.
Jane Allgood was a hard-working and successful young woman. She had attained her degree from Miskatonic University and, ten years later, she was now the successful CEO of a rapidly growing management consulting firm.
For years Miskatonic had been sending low-paid student intern telemarketers after her, shilling for donations, but she had politely declined. After all, she still had a few payments left on her student debt. Her relationship with her alma mater was utilitarian at best.
Her company was thriving, and in its tenth year it grew at an amazing pace. So amazing, in fact, that she made the top ten in the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in America. She and her team were proud of that accomplishment, even if it meant an increase in telemarketers trying to sell them something.
Then the call came.
“Jane, this is Barnaby Spirok from Miskatonic University.” The caller’s voice was smooth but friendly. “I’m calling from the Office of Institutional Advancement on behalf of the Dean of the Business School, and we’d like to take you out to lunch.”
“Uh, sure,” said Jane, recognizing that this was most likely another ploy to get money but flattered by the high-level attention. She was especially puzzled since she had graduated from the engineering college, not business, but whatever. “How about the Applebee’s on route 1?”
Barnaby had something different in mind. “That’s fine, but the Dean was thinking he’d like to take you out to Chez Expensif instead. Does next Monday work?” Slightly stunned, Jane agreed and ended the call.
On Monday, Jane arrived a few minutes early at Chez Expensif. It looked… expensive. While she was impressed, she also entertained bitter thoughts that this was where her tuition money had gone when she was living off of ramen noodles and Cap’n Crunch three meals a day.
Two men in suits arrived; one was obviously coaching the other. “Remember that she graduated from engineering, but because she made the Inc. 5000 we can tell her we consider her an excellent example of the business community.” That must be Barnaby. The other man nodded.
Jane cleared her throat and introduced herself to the two men, who seemed not at all abashed that they had just been talking about her. The group went in to eat.
The small group sat down and enjoyed a delicious and seriously overpriced meal. The Dean was a polite man, but he had a thick accent and only spoke up on occasion, so Barnaby did most of the talking. “We’re really impressed with your achievements. I spent a lot of time learning about your company and you’ve really come a long way!”
Jane nodded politely. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good people work with me,” she said. She knew a sales pitch was coming soon.
Barnaby seemed to sense an opportunity. “That’s wonderful! And how many of those people did you meet during your time at Miskatonic?”
Jane, slightly wary, said “Well, my two cofounders were both classmates, and two of our earliest employees were people that I had met during my co-op cycle.”
This was Barnaby’s cue. “That’s fantastic! We’re so glad to hear that your time at Miskatonic helped you and your career. In fact, it’s graduates like you that really help build and maintain the Miskatonic community. Would you be interested in becoming part of that community again?”
Jane was a savvy businesswoman, and she knew what that phrase meant: “will you give us money?” However, she was also trying to grow her company, so she welcomed any opportunity to expand her network. “I could certainly think about it,” she said, “but I’m also trying to grow my business, so cash is tight.”
Barnaby chuckled and waved his hand. “We understand, but I’ve learned a lot about your business and think you would benefit from meeting some of our Trustees and some of the other high-powered executives that we work with. Why, I was just at a dinner with the CEO of Megacorp last week. Would you like to meet her?”
Inside, Jane drooled. She had been trying to develop business at Megacorp for years. Having a direct path to the CEO would be amazing. “Sure, that would be great,” she replied calmly. “So what are you looking for from a member of the ‘community’?”
Barnaby smiled. “Well, for an initial annual contribution of $5,000…”
Jane signed up to create a scholarship named after one of her favorite professors. She would donate $5,000 every year for five years, and as such would become a member of the Miskatonic Society. In return, Barnaby would try to help her build her network through the university’s community.
And he did. Soon Jane found herself as a judge for the university’s annual entrepreneurship competition and as an advisor to the college of engineering. She was invited to perform guest lectures at the business school. Barnaby’s office set her up to meet select alumni, and while none of them really helped her grow her business, she felt that the school was making a reasonable effort.
Six months later, Jane was getting dressed for a night out. She and her husband had been invited to the Miskatonic Society’s annual gala, which was a dinner and party for the big donors to the University. Her donation was just large enough to get her on the list.
When she and her husband exited their car and handed the keys to the valet, a young man in a tuxedo stepped right up to them. “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Allgood. Welcome to the gala! May I take your coats?”
Jane was amazed. How had the young man known who they were? She would find out later that Miskatonic’s team build dossiers on all of the large donors, including pictures, and that they had been trained to recognize every guest upon arrival.
Jane and her husband stepped into the skyscraper where the gala was being held. After a quick ride to the 23rd floor at the very top of the building, they stepped out to find more Miskatonic staff in evening attire. “Step right over here for your picture, please!” called one, and in seconds Jane and her husband were posing in front of a giant backdrop.
Into the gala they went, where they mixed and mingled with people who appeared to be far older and far wealthier than they. Barnaby saw them from across the room and came over and offered a warm greeting. Jane knew that he was basically a salesman, but he managed to make everyone feel warm and welcomed.
Miskatonic really knew how to throw a party. At the end of the sumptuous meal, the charismatic and hugely successful president of the university stood up and gave a brief speech, recounting the university’s recent successes and thanking all of the donors present. He pointed how important Institutional Advancement was to the university’s growth and specifically thanked Barnaby for his contribution.
Jane knew that the only real tie between the people at the gala was the fact that they had all attended Miskatonic University and had all give the school thousands of dollars, but Barnaby had been right. It felt like a community.
Two months later, Miskatonic called Jane again. “President Dak would like to invite you to his house for dinner. Is next Saturday evening acceptable?”
Again, Jane was surprised. She agreed, and the following Saturday she and her husband pulled up to the president’s mansion, an enormous building owned by the university.
President Dak himself greeted them at the door; inside, Barnaby and the business dean were already mixing with many guests. An hour later the staff served dinner in a dining room that could easily hold forty people.
The president gave a miniature and more personal version of his speech from the gala, reminding everyone present how important they were to the success of Miskatonic and thanking them again for their considerable support. Even if she hadn’t seen any concrete financial benefits from her donation, Jane felt appreciated.
The following year, Jane received a letter from Barnaby announcing his retirement. Later that same year, it was announced that President Dak had died suddenly of a heart attack. Shocked that such a vibrant man could be gone so suddenly, Jane was genuinely saddened by his passing.
Months after Barnaby’s retirement a different representative of the Office of Institutional Advancement called Jane and invited her to lunch. At Applebee’s. A year after that, a different person called and introduced herself as the new representative. The following year, and another new face.
Jane had made a five-year pledge, and each year she dutifully wrote out another large check. But no more deans called her, and the new president didn’t send her anything other than a form letter. Each representative from the Office of Institutional Advancement had seemed less and less imposing, less and less interested in her as anything other than a source for donations, and now they didn’t call at all.
Three years after she had last seen a member of the Office of Institutional Advancement, Jane received a phone call.
The caller sounded young and like she was reading from a slightly customized script. “Good afternoon Mrs. Goodall. I’m calling on behalf of Miskatonic University. I understand that you graduated from the school in 1991?”
“Yes,” said Jane, wondering why the school was calling her. Perhaps someone from the Office wanted to meet with her again.
“That’s great,” the caller said with no detectable trace of enthusiasm. “I just wanted to let you know how important you are to the University, and remind you that each year thousands of students hope to gain the same benefits of a Miskatonic education that you enjoy. To help those students, we’re asking alumna like yourself to make a donation of $500. Can we count on your support today?”
There was an awkward silence as Jane processed the meaning of the phone call. “You’re asking me to make a donation?!” Jane spluttered.
The caller was unphased. “We understand that you may not feel particularly attached to the university, Mrs. Goodall, but would you consider supporting a student through a donation of $250?”
Now Jane was livid. “I’ve been a huge donor for years! I’m a member of the Miskatonic Society and on three advisory boards at the university!”
The caller shifted gears. “That’s great, I’m glad to hear that you’re already supporting the university. But we have many students who need tuition assistance, so could we ask you do dig just a little deeper and contribute $100?”
Jane, recognizing that the caller was just a low-level drone, snarled a question. “Who are you working for? Are you part of the Office of Institutional Advancement?”
“No, ma’am. We’re a paid fundraiser working on behalf of the College of Engineering…”
Jane had had enough. She hung up. Then she went to her desk and sent a series of e-mails, resigning from all of her remaining roles at the University. She never donated to them again. She never even stepped foot on their campus again. When her own children were old enough to begin looking at colleges, she steered them away from Miskatonic.
Don’t Backtrack on the Relationship
A huge part of customer experience design is the intentional development of a relationship with your customers. The challenge of relationships is that they require care, and they can’t go backwards.
President Dak, Barnaby, and their teams invested a huge amount of time and energy in wooing Jane and bringing her into their community, which both brought in revenue through Jane’s donations and created more value for the other members. When Barnaby retired and Dak died the philosophy of cultivating relationships went with them. Their successors didn’t place the same value on maintaining and building relationships, and so they neglected Jane more through inattentiveness than anything else.
Relationships matter. If your best friend walks past you on the street and treats you like a total stranger, you’re going to feel surprised, hurt, and angry. That’s what happened to Jane when the telemarketer called her. Even though Miskatonic was a huge organization and no offense was intended, it was given, and it was enough to drive a former donor to completely sever her ties with the organization.
Do you know what level of relationship you have with each member of your customer base? How do you ensure that you build the relationship rather than carelessly destroy it?
You invest a huge amount of effort in building up each relationship with your customer. Don’t backtrack on the relationship.