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  • How to Catapult Your Customer Partnerships to New Heights

    Chip Bell, How to Catapult Your Customer Partnerships to New Heights

    It was a gorgeous early morning in midtown Memphis. I was hungry for an old-fashioned breakfast and tired of the hotel restaurant menu. Plus, the evening before the sole of my right dress shoe elected to separate from the shoe with so much as a friendly warning. So, I was also hungry for a shoe expert to get me ready for a late morning engagement.

    Walking down Main Street a couple of blocks from the hotel, right shoe in hand, I encountered Mr. Chester in front of the Down To Earth Barber Shop. He had a broad smile, greying hair, impish eyes, and a face likely contoured by many long hard miles.

    “I am looking for a great place for breakfast,” I told him. “That would be the Blue Plate Café around the corner,” he answered without hesitation. Staring at my dress shoe he continued, “What’s with the shoe?” I was so impressed with his warm, confidant style I had almost forgotten my cargo.

    “And, I am also looking for someone who can repair this shoe in a hurry,” I told him. The shop behind him was dark and noticeably closed.

    He proudly announced, “I’m the shoe man! I’m Chester.” I was feeling lucky.\

    “What time do you open?” I queried. His answer was laced with charisma.

    “Tell you what. If you’ll buy me a cup of coffee at the Blue Plate, I’ll have your shoe repaired by the time you finish your breakfast.” It seemed like a fair deal.

    We walked a half-block to the restaurant; he got his coffee to go and disappeared. A half-hour later I was walking into his shoe repair corner of the Down To Earth Barber Shop. His face now looked like that of an artist who had just completed a masterpiece. The right shoe was perfect—complete with a fresh shine!   As I left the shop, he called out, “Please come back to see me again, partner.”

    “Partner” seemed like the perfect moniker for the brief relationship we enjoyed. He could have said, “Shop opens at 9.” He might have said, “I can have it ready by next Tuesday.” And, the transaction could have occurred with a normal trade—a shoe repair in exchange for $20. But, he charmed me into buying him a cup of coffee and then rewarded my generosity with what he could offer—a shoeshine at no extra cost.

    Customer Partnerships Are Egalitarian

    Most customer relationships are exercises in confidant deference. It is “the customer is always right” or “the customer is king” type mentality. It does not mean service providers are servant-like; customers enjoy servers with confidence. But, it does imply the service provider accedes to the customer’s wishes and needs. Chester was very confident; he was also noticeably respectful. He turned acquiescence into mutuality.

    Our energy should rest on abundance not on scarcity; giving takes precedence over scorekeeping.

    What changed the encounter from a routine transaction to a valued partnership was his encouragement of interdependence—he would open up early in exchange for a cup of diner coffee. I never got the impression he could not afford what he requested. Instead he seemed to inviting me to put some skin in the game.

    Customer Partnerships Are Fair

    Great partnerships care about fairness, not a perfect fifty-fifty split. Who knows if the cost of a cup of coffee matched the charge for a shoeshine? I was unconcerned about tit for tat and so was Mr. Chester. Great partnerships are about floating reciprocity and grounded in an optimism that says, “It will all balance out in the end,” even if the concept of “end” is imprecise. Their energy is on abundance not on scarcity; giving takes precedence over scorekeeping.

    Customer Partnerships Are About Promises Kept

    Partners don’t put much energy into contracts. They do value clear agreements and mutual understanding. I had complete faith I would not have to wait on my shoe repair after breakfast. Great partners’ strong fair-play ethic fuels their drive to always “do the right thing.” Think about it: where did contracts originate? They emerged from a betrayal of the fairness doctrine–someone cut the candy bar and also took the first piece!

    We live in an era of razor thin margins, bottom line obsession, and aggressive cost control. Solid metrics sometimes trump good manners. When the “balance the books” bean counters search for all the pennies in customer transactions, they risk losing the dollars of a loyal customer who desires a relationship with a bit more give in it. But, what customers long to experience most is the sentiment borne in: “Please come back to see me again, partner.”

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