Customer Relationships – If you don’t ask, you don’t care.

What’s real vs your perception?

I was flying home to Dublin recently after a business trip & staying with my mother overnight. Taking off early Friday morning from London Southend (yes – London Southend, really!), we rapidly climbed above the Essex countryside. Despite a stag party, it was pretty quiet at that time in the morning. One of the ‘stags’ colleagues peered out the window and, seeing all the farmland, exclaimed “Wow, it’s not until you get up here that you realise just how big agriculture is. It’s huge & employs millions of people.” After that brief interlude he then returned to the true purpose of the day…..”2 cans of Stella, please”.
Way too early for me…..


It’s all in the numbers…

That got me thinking about something I’d read recently. Checking back, the numbers were pretty different to what my fellow passenger thought. Agriculture accounts for just 0.5% of the UK economy and employs slightly less than 0.5m people or 1.5% of the total working population (4.1% in Wales, 5.7% in Northern Ireland). It does, however, account for c.75% of land use in the UK. 

Clearly, it depends on the definitions of “huge”, “big” & “millions” but it’s fair to say that my fellow passengers’ PERCEPTION of agriculture was radically different to the facts.


….everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong.”

I can imagine the cries of “intellectual snobbery” being raised. This isn’t about that. In a brilliant book, “Factfulness”, the author, Swedish global health professor Hans Rosling, asks 13 multiple choice questions around facts about the world and how its human inhabitants are developing. I’m not going to spoil it, but the answers are astonishing.

Most people get it wrong by a staggering amount. Worse, most people get it wrong by answering exactly the opposite of what has actually happened. He has done this exercise with thousands of people across the globe; the results are consistent. Back to the intellectual snobbery cries. He has done the same test at events like Davos with world leaders, heads of large corporations, Nobel prize laureates et al – highly educated people who take an interest in the world.

“A stunning majority of them……get most of the answers wrong….everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong…..systematically wrong.” The results Rosling gets are worse than if he did the exercise with chimpanzees who chose random results. Let’s be clear, human beings do worse than random results. Our PERCEPTION about what is really going on around us is fundamentally flawed.


How does your customer perceive your relationship?

Working with our clients I often get to ask customer-facing teams questions like “How important is the relationship with your customer?” Everyone puts their hand up. “Great – how many of you actually talk about it with your customer?” Not the what, but the how. I continue, “Who actually discusses ‘the relationship’?” This normally gets an interesting “tumbleweed moment” with much embarrassed looking down at shuffling feet. Someone normally mentions some industry survey the company does every couple of years at this point. Great, so you get a bunch of averages and quotes from anonymous people.

I’m being deliberately harsh on feedback surveys, they play an important role but the point remains. How often do you actually spend time talking about the relationship between two organisations and the people within them? My unscientific sample of clients suggests a consistency running towards a pretty small number.

So all those business plans & deals are based upon a relationship that not many people understand or discuss. Let’s go back to Roslings’ work. Most people have an astonishingly wrong perception of what is actually going on in the world. What’s the chance that the same is true of your relationship with your customer?


Putting it on a scale….

Sitting in the back of my parents-in-law car I remember fondly how Paddy, my now deceased father-in-law, would turn to his wife, Monica (she did the driving) and lovingly ask – “so, Monica, how are we doing 1 to 10?” A sharp hard stare reply would elicit from Paddy, “Oh, that’ll be around 2/3 then. Let’s talk about that later.”

This experience was funny and illuminating. Paddy was formally uneducated past basic schooling, leaving school in his early teens. But he was one of the most worldly-wise and smartest men I have met, successfully building a small business and great family.  He was smart enough to ask about the relationship and smart enough to put it on a scale. In my experience with clients, many highly educated people in customer-facing roles do neither of these things.

We use a tool called the PERCEPTION LADDER. Something that provides a scale and, this is the important bit, provokes the curiosity to understand more. The score matters but the conversation it can provoke matters more.  This is what you don’t get from a survey.

A few years ago in London, a group of very senior & experienced bankers that I was working with shrieked “you don’t expect us to put that (the perception ladder) in front of our customers, do you? They might tell us things we don’t like!” Quite.


If you don’t ask, you don’t care.
Three tips to help.

If you are not asking about the relationship, you can easily give the impression that you don’t care. That can be devastating for your business. How many times have you heard about an established customer leaving because they thought you didn’t care and a feeling of complacency has set in?

Don’t let that happen. Here are 3 tips to help.

  1. Frame the meeting – Give your customer advance notice about the type of meeting you want to have. It’s about the “how” not the “what”. This isn’t the type of meeting to “pounce” on a customer.
  2. Put a scale on it – Talking about the relationship can be awkward, so put a scale of it. Words like “good” and “OK” aren’t very useful. Compared to what? We use the Perception Ladder but any scale can help. This gives some relativity and gives scope for the important bit…..
  3. Get brave & curious – Having relativity gives plenty of scope to get curious and add value. Prepare your questions – what makes them say that? Where would they like you to be? What’s stopping it happening? Where are other suppliers? What can you learn from them? There are plenty of areas to cover here and add value to your relationship.

Simply by asking about the relationship, adds value – it shows that you care about it.

Frame it. Put in on a scale. Get brave & curious.

If you enjoyed this article & think it may help others, please share it, like or comment, or email me your feedback and thoughts at gareth@expressionforgrowth.com

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