Are Customer Relationships on the Demise?

What do you expect from the elevator or escalator where you frequently traffic?  You probably want the service to be quiet, reliable and traverse up and down at just the right speed.  When it is “out of order,” you grumble about the forced alternative, but rarely take out your frustration on the steely, silent mode of transportation.  And, if the elevator or escalator starts to say “thank you for riding” each time you step aboard, you would likely consider this value-added feature to be intrusive and unnecessary.

In a recent Corporate Executive Board study the researchers state that a vast majority of consumers (77%) had no interest in developing a “relationship” with the businesses they patronize.  The study was the centerpiece of a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers”  by Matthew Dixon, Karen Freeman and Nicholas Toman.  One blogger affirming the study wrote, “All they [customers] want is for your front-line staff to do what they said they were going to do.  All they want is for your company to make their lives easier, not harder.”

Without going into the nitty gritty of the study, the research was conducted on 75,000 people who had interacted with a call center operator or via self-service channels like web, e-mail, and chat.  The punch line of the study is for organizations to put their energy on doing what they promise and making the contact effortless.  No more delight mania; no more relationship building.  In the words of famed comedian Larry the Cable Guy, “Just git ‘er done!”

Generalizations make me real nervous.  Just because most customers don’t want a delightful experience and relationship with a call center operator or website, does not mean it nixes that criteria from all customer encounters, even for call centers.   All call centers or websites are not of equal importance to customers.  Some are and should be as functional as an elevator.  But, if that call center happens to be wrapped around a component critical to the livelihood of the customer, a delightful relationship might be viewed with a bit more scrutiny.  My laptop is one example.  It is vital to my work and I am very particular about the quality of computer service I receive.

“Hi, I’m Kelly.  I’m on Elena’s team.  I have all your information in front of me.  How may I help you, Chip?”  These words started my second conversation with Dell after buying a laptop computer from Elena.

Here is the best part.  Dell’s Elena set it up from the beginning.  “Chip, I want you to have my direct extension.  But, if I am tied up with another customer, you’ll always get one of my terrific team members who will have all your information on your history and requirements.  They’ll let me know what they did to serve you.”  Sure enough, my third call to Dell to overnight a much needed accessory got me, “Chip, its Ted from Elena’s team.”

I did expect Dell to do what they promised; and, I did expect Dell to make my experience as effortless as possible.  But, my loyalty to Dell is not anchored in stress-free promise keeping.  It is attached to a delightful experience grounded in a relationship I can trust.

There are many service providers I want to function as efficiently as the elevator in the office building of several of my clients.  I do not want a first name relationship with the kid at the car wash.  I am completely happy with the bagger simply not breaking my eggs and offering to carry my groceries to the car.  And, if the toll booth operator I frequently see requested my email address, I would consider him downright weird.

However, I want my plumber, accountant, dry cleaner, physician, electrician, barber, dentist, travel agent, attorney, housekeeper, and bartender to know me and my unique needs.  I want these service providers to delight me with personalized, tailor-made service when I need it and the way I need it.  And, simply meeting my requirements as effortless as possible is not enough for this cadre of service providers.

If I cannot reach my plumber in the middle of the night when I have a “burst water pipe” emergency; he’s going to be replaced.  If my barber has to ask me each time I sit in his chair how to cut my hair this time, I will no long sit in his chair.  If my travel agent is not attuned to my special needs as a road warrior and unable to adapt 24/7 to my “this week NYC; next week Nicaragua” travel calendar, she is off my preferred list.  And, the requirements for a relationship—that “I-know-you-and-how-you-are-unique-from-all-others-I-serve” is not about a dollar amount; it is essential for the service provided.  It is not about a helpful attitude, an effortless transaction, or consistency, all of which are essential.  It is about being a trusted team member!

So, before you scratch “relationship” and “delight” off the “must have” list for all of your customers everywhere in all circumstances, find a simple, consistent and reliable way to ask YOUR customers what they value.

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.