A former teacher, Matt now specializes in R&D for ecommerce business owners and helps guide merchants in understanding the importance of this digital-first world.
No matter what industry your company operates in;
No matter what products you sell or services you offer;
Whether your target consumers are individual people or major corporations;
The key to ongoing success is in building solid, long-lasting relationships with your customers.
Yes, the quality of your products or services certainly matters, as well; you’re obviously not going to keep your customers around if your main offering isn’t all that great.
But those are table stakes. Even if your products are high in quality, that won’t be enough to differentiate you from your competitors nowadays.
The modern consumer wants more.
They want to have a better overall experience with your brand.
They want authenticity from companies they do business with.
They want to be able to trust that their favorite brands have their best interests in mind.
Unfortunately, a recent report from Salesforce found that only 37% of consumers feel like their favorite retailers really know or care about them. In other words, most consumers assume the companies they do business with see them as a number rather than an individual human being.
For ecommerce companies, this problem is made even worse due to the impersonal nature of the business. While the “hands-off” part of the equation may have been one of the reasons ecommerce took off in the first place, it seems many companies - as well as consumers - have neglected to realize just how important authentic vendor-customer relationships are.
The good news, though, is that if your company is focused on building strong relationships with your customers, your brand will almost certainly stand out in your industry. When your customers know they can trust you, they’re bound to stick around for a long time to come - and are also more likely to sing your praises to their friends and family members.
What’s more, the better you know your customers, the better able you’ll be to improve your products and services to meet their needs. The better able you are to meet their needs, the more trust they’ll put in your brand. The more they trust you, the more engaged they’ll be. The more engaged they are, the more you’ll be able to learn about them, etc.; the virtuous cycle will continue on and on.
The more focused you are on building authentic relationships with your customers, the better off your business will be.
Of course, now the question becomes:
How, exactly, can you build these relationships in the first place?
In this article, we’ll explain what relationship marketing is, the different “levels” of relationship marketing, and the fundamental principles of building authentic relationships with each and every one of your customers.
Let’s dive in.
What Is Relationship Marketing?
While we’ve already touched on the overarching benefits of relationship marketing, we really haven’t nailed down a specific definition of the term yet.
Founder and CEO of Ambassador Jeff Epstein lays it out plainly:
“Relationship marketing is an all-encompassing term that personifies any effort to build long-term relationships with customers, rather than push for one-time sales.”
So, relationship marketing refers to pretty much anything you do to:
- Create relationships based on trust with new customers
- Engage with your existing customers beyond the point of sale
- Retain customers over long periods of time
- Facilitate referrals, recommendations, and ambassadorship from your raving fans
Epstein further explains that relationship marketing is made up of five “segments”:
- Influencer marketing
- Partner marketing
- Employee advocacy
- Referral marketing
- Affiliate marketing
Let’s take a quick look at each of these in a bit more detail to better understand what they have to do with relationship marketing.
You’re probably well aware that influencer marketing is all the rage nowadays.
It’s currently seen as the fastest way to acquire new customers by the vast majority of brands - which would explain why roughly two-thirds of all marketing teams plan to continue increasing their influencer marketing budget in the coming year.
But influencer marketing’s connection with relationship marketing has to do with why it's so successful in the first place.
Basically, it all comes down to the fact that consumers trust the influencers they follow, regardless of the niche or industry they operate in. If Kylie Jenner vouches for a certain brand of lipstick, her followers will trust the brand offers quality products. If Gary Vee recommends a new book on digital marketing, you can be sure the author in question knows what they’re talking about.
Like we said above, part of relationship marketing is building a relationship with your customers based on trust right from your very first engagement. By having highly-trusted influencers sing your praises to their highly-trusting audiences, you’ll be able to cast aside any doubt they may have about your brand.
Partner marketing is similar to influencer marketing, in that it involves working with a third-party entity to spread awareness of your brand and collect highly-qualified leads.
But, more than simply creating content, partner marketing often involves collaborating with other brands to create joint products and services.
For example, in 2015, Starbucks partnered with Spotify to create a service which allowed customers to add songs from their Starbucks location’s playlist to their own Spotify playlist.
The purpose, of course, is to get Starbucks customers who don’t use Spotify to start doing so; on Starbucks’ side, this partnership allows the coffee giant to stay top of mind whenever a song from its playlists pops up on their customers’ phones. This fills one of the goals of relationship marketing we spoke about earlier: maintaining engagement with your customers beyond the point of sale.
Remember how we said brand authenticity is huge in the eyes of the modern consumer?
A key aspect of this authenticity is showcasing the fact that your company is made up of real people that truly care about:
- Their customers
- Their company’s mission
- The world around them
It’s also important that your team members take pride in the work they do, and that they become outspoken supporters of your organization as a whole. Just as you ideally want your customers to recommend your brand’s products to their friends and family members, you also want the members of your team to do so as well.
Speaking of customer advocacy…
As we’ve alluded to a few times already, getting your current customers to tell others in their personal and professional networks how awesome your company is can be a huge shot in the arm for your business. In fact, most consumers place more trust in the recommendations of a friend or family member than in any other form of advertising.
But referral marketing isn’t just about generating new business via said recommendations. It’s also about providing such extreme value to your current customers that they become more than happy to do so in the first place. Additionally, it’s about providing them with the means to make a well-targeted, highly-valuable recommendation - and to incentivize them to do so, as well.
Again, it all comes back to engagement. Yes, the ultimate goal of referral marketing is to generate more high-quality leads - but the added bonus is that you inherently get to engage further with your most valuable customers along the way.
While admittedly not a new marketing tactic by any stretch, affiliate marketing is similar to influencer marketing in that a company partners with a third-party entity to gain exposure to a new audience. In turn, the partner (affiliate) gets a percentage of every sale that can be attributed to their efforts.
So, again, affiliate marketing is about finding the right people to work with - that is, whose audience members will find value in your products - and enabling them to showcase the qualities of your brand that make your company worth doing business with. Just as with influencer marketing, if a reputable source speaks highly of your brand, their followers are bound to listen.
The Five Tiers of the Customer-Company Relationship
In this section, we’re going to dig into the different relationship “levels” brands typically have with their customers.
These tiers, in order from most basic to most robust, are:
- Basic Relationships
- Reactive Relationships
- Accountable Relationships
- Proactive Relationships
- Partner Relationships
The main reason it’s so important to understand these different levels is so that you can gauge where your company currently stands, and have a clear idea of what you need to do to move up the ladder, so to speak.
Let’s start at the bottom.
The most basic company-customer relationship is strictly transactional: the customer pays the company, the company provides the agreed-upon product or service, and both parties go on their merry way.
Needless to say, this isn’t exactly a sustainable business model.
For one thing, it essentially leaves customer retention up to chance. Since the company isn’t focused on engaging with its customers beyond the point of sale, there’s absolutely no opportunity for the relationship to bloom into something bigger. Even if the customer does receive value from the product they purchased, this probably won’t be incentive enough for them to want to continue doing business with the company.
Basically, if you make it clear to your customers that you only care about their money, they’re almost certainly going to leave your company behind in favor of one they can trust.
The second tier of relationship marketing is where you’ll find companies that understand that the company-customer relationship should be more about the basic transaction. Still, these companies are quite rudimentary in how they go about cultivating such a relationship.
Basically, companies at this level focus on asking for feedback and providing the option for customers to reach out with any questions or concerns they have once they start using the company’s product or service.
However, this is more because the company knows it’s something it “should be doing,” not because it truly wants to provide this extra support. In other words, the company is merely paying lip service to its customers; the team doesn’t truly care about their needs.
Companies at this third level are becoming more concerned with the level of satisfaction they’re providing their customers. Moreover, this concern stems from a genuine desire to help their customers achieve their goals, rather than a desire simply to make more money.
As the name of this level implies, such companies truly hold themselves accountable, and want to be absolutely sure they’ve provided what they promised they would to their customers. For this reason, companies at the Accountable stage will follow up with their customers after they’ve made a purchase to ensure their satisfaction, and will invite them to provide feedback - good or bad - regarding their products or services.
That said, companies at this stage are still fairly rudimentary in their efforts to engage further with their customers. Again, while they truly do care about their customers, they take a sort of “silence is golden” approach, here; that is, if a customer says they don’t have any questions or concerns, these companies will typically leave it at that and move on. Unfortunately, this essentially means that they won’t be engaging with said customer until the next time they make a purchase - which, of course, isn’t good for business.
Companies at the proactive level have a true understanding of the importance of staying connected to their customers - and they also know the best ways to do so.
These are the companies that actively communicate with their customers, whether through email, social media, or in “real life.” While the focus of these engagements typically do relate to their business relationship in some way or another, it’s not always about making a sale; in fact, it rarely is. More often, companies at the Proactive stage focus on providing value and enhancing their customers’ lives, so as to keep their brand top-of-mind, and to prove that they truly do care about their customers’ well-being.
Now, you may be thinking, “This sounds like most brands that come to mind.” And that’s the point: the brands you love come to mind because they fit this description, while the companies that don’t measure up are quite easily forgotten.
The final tier of relationship marketing is where companies work to get their customers, as well as other third-party entities, actively engaged in providing value to the world in some way or another.
Typically, this involves getting customers and partner companies to spread the good word about a company’s products or services, essentially acting as brand evangelists. To be successful at this stage, organizations must be focused on the value they provide their target customers - not simply on skyrocketing their sales numbers.
Now, to be sure, reaching this level of operations definitely is good for business - and you should certainly be striving to reach this height if you want business to be booming. That said, the increased business you’ll likely receive upon reaching this tier is the byproduct of doing so, not the endgame. In other words, you should be striving to provide as much value to as many people you can regardless of the effect doing so has on your business; in turn, business will almost certainly take off.
The 9 Foundational Principles of Relationship Marketing
Now that we’ve illustrated exactly what it looks like when an organization successfully builds authentic relationships with its customers, we can dig into how they can begin doing so.
Throughout the rest of this article, we’ll discuss the fundamental principles of relationship marketing, and provide a number of examples of ecommerce companies “doing it right.”
Focus On Your Customers’ Needs
You’ve probably heard this a million times, but it’s worth saying once more:
You’re not selling a product; you’re selling a solution.
Yes, at the point of sale, you deliver your product in exchange for your customer’s money. But they’re giving you their money with the understanding that your product will provide value to their lives in some way or another.
Even if your product does provide the value you promised, if that’s all your brand does for your customers they’re probably going to forget all about you soon enough.
(And, of course, if it doesn’t provide this value, they’re definitely going to forget about you.)
At any rate, companies that truly have their customers’ needs in mind know that they’re not done providing value to their customers just because they’ve already gotten paid. Rather, top-tier companies continue to provide supplemental value to their clientele long before and long after the point of sale.
Some of the best ways to provide this supplemental value include:
- Providing instructional content, such as how-to videos and ebooks
- Developing an in-depth onboarding process to get new customers acclimated with your brand
- Showcasing complementary products and services that allow customers to get even more value out of their initial purchase
ShoeDazzle actually kills two birds with one stone, quizzing its new customers with regard to their preferred style - then showcasing a variety of products they’d potentially want to check out:
Compare this needs-based approach to marketing with the generic, one-size-fits-all promotions that your typically bottom-tier company would use. You don’t need us to tell you which one draws more business.
Listen to Your Customers’ Feedback
Notice how we skipped right over saying you need to solicit feedback from your customers, and went right into the importance of listening to said feedback.
(Source / “...and that's really the most important part of customer feedback, the listening.”)
All kidding aside, we mentioned earlier that, while lower-tier companies may solicit feedback from their customers, they typically don’t really do anything with the information they’ve gleaned. Needless to say, these companies tend to have a tough time making improvements to their products and/or services.
On the other side of the spectrum, companies operating on the higher tiers are always looking to learn from their customers and to make improvements based on what they’ve learned.
These companies also go above and beyond in terms of how they seek out such information. Yes, they’ll send the expected follow-up email after a completed delivery, and they’ll shoot out blast emails with surveys from time to time. But they’ll also look for mentions of their brand on social media, blog posts, third-party review sites, and elsewhere. In doing so, they can then proactively reach out to individual customers as appropriate, to address their concerns or thank them for their kind words - or both.
For example, take a look at this exchange between a dissatisfied JetBlue customer and the company’s social media team:
What started as a pretty poor situation in the eyes of this passenger ended up being an overall pleasant experience.
(Not only that, but it also led to some great publicity for JetBlue, as well.)
This ties into everything we’ve said so far about ensuring you’ve provided your customers with the value you’ve promised. JetBlue could have easily swept the issue under the rug - or ignored it completely - but by choosing to tackle the issue head-on, the company was able to find a way to make up for the misstep in a way that satisfied the unhappy customer.
Be Available on Your Customers’ Terms
Throughout this article, we’ve hammered home the importance of soliciting and listening to your customers’ feedback and suggestions.
But we’ve left out one important detail of the equation:
Making sure your customers are able to communicate with your company in the manner that works best for them.
Take a moment and try to remember the days before the internet. Even back then, companies did solicit feedback, offer customer support, and otherwise opened the door for their customers to communicate with them…
...but it wasn’t exactly a streamlined process.
Customer service “hotlines” were always busy, and when they weren’t, they still weren’t very helpful. And, heaven forbid you had a problem after 5:00 Friday afternoon, you were basically out of luck until Monday morning.
Consumers who wished to respond to surveys and questionnaires would need to manually fill out forms, go to the post office for stamps and envelopes, then send off the letter with no guarantee anyone would actually read it.
Luckily, the advent of the internet and smartphones have made it incredibly easy to stay connected with your customers.
But you still have to put in effort to be there for them.
Yes, you certainly can provide automated response services, such as email autoresponders and chatbots. But you can’t rely on this technology to do all of the work.
Instead, you should be using these automated processes simply to collect and organize this information from your customers - then have your team manually take over.
Being where your customers need you to be - and reaching back out to them in a timely fashion - is one of the main ways of building a trusting relationship with them. In our modern, ever-connected world, this is one area you can’t afford to neglect.
Speaking of “the times we live in,” consumers in the Age of Information thrive off of learning as much as they can about the brands they do business with.
That said, you need to be the one providing this information to them.
First things first, you need to communicate your brand’s mission loud and clear to your target audience.
This again goes back to showcasing your brand’s authenticity, and proving to your customers that your company is about more than just making money.
On a more practical level, you also need to be highly informative with regard to the logistics of your services. This means being upfront about product pricing, delivery fees, your return policies, and more. As you surely know, unwelcome surprises during transactions is a major turnoff for consumers.
By being as informative as possible on a macro and micro level - and, of course, following through with your claims - you’ll inherently be able to build trusting relationships with your customer base.
We mentioned this earlier on:
Just because you’ll very likely never meet your customers face-to-face, that doesn’t mean their experience with your brand should lack a personal touch.
Even when things are completely hands-off on your end (i.e., when your customers are browsing your site rather than trying to communicate directly), you can still personalize their experience in a number of ways.
From dynamic content and product suggestions to personalized offers based on demographics, geographics, and purchase history, you have a variety of options to enable you to make your individual customers feel like more than “just another customer.”
When your customers do take active steps to engage with your company - in any way - you also want to keep track of their actions.
This is perhaps the reason CRMs exist in the first place: to allow you to know exactly where each of your customers is in their own personal buyer’s journey, and to be able to reach out to them with a highly-personalized offer that will resonate with them - and get them to engage further with your brand.
Provide Continuous Support
As we mentioned earlier, your duty to your customers isn’t complete once you’ve made a sale.
In fact, the point of transaction marks the beginning of your responsibility to your recently-converted customers.
That said, you need to be sure your customers have everything they need to use your products to successfully overcome whatever challenge they’re facing - and to squeeze every bit of value out of your offering. This means providing top-notch onboarding support, supplemental instructional content, and personalized support whenever the need arises.
Also, remember that silence on your customer’s end doesn’t necessarily mean things are going swimmingly. From time to time, you’ll want to reach out to your recent customers to ensure your product has met their expectations, and to see if there’s anything else you can do to help them.
Again, one of the main differences between a middle-tier organization and a top-tier organization in terms of relationship marketing is in how they provide support to their customers. Rather than waiting for them to reach out to you, you need to be proactive to ensure they get the most out of what you have to offer.
Be Open, Honest, and Respectful
We’ve already discussed the notion of standing for something bigger than your organization.
But it’s worth mentioning that you actually have to walk the walk, as well.
Yes, it’s obviously important that you follow through with whatever you stand for. If you’re blatantly lying about supporting a specific cause, you’re clearly going to alienate your trusting customers.
(For example, imagine if it turned out that TOMS didn’t actually donate a pair of shoes for every pair its customers purchase; the backlash would almost certainly sink the company completely.)
Taking this a step further, you need to actually care about the causes you claim to champion. In other words, you don’t want to use your acts of charity as a selling point for your brand; while it might look good “on paper,” your customers will see right through the facade.
Additionally, you need to be sure that your overall operations don’t unintentionally go against the causes you stand for. Going back to the Patagonia example from earlier, their “on paper” mission statement wouldn’t mean all that much if it turned out the company was causing more harm than good to the environment.
(To be clear, they’re not. But, like we said, imagine how the company’s customers would feel if it were.)
The takeaway here is, if you want to forge an authentic and trusting relationship with your customers, you absolutely cannot even think about “pulling the wool over their eyes” in any way, period. No matter how small the transgression may seem, it will definitely end up hurting your company in the long run.
Show Your Appreciation
Your customers are what keeps your company in business, right?
So, in addition to providing them maximum value through your products and services, you also want to go above and beyond to thank them for enabling you to thrive.
On a personal level, you can celebrate certain milestones, such as your customers’ birthdays or “anniversaries” with your brand.
While you probably don’t need us to tell you how valuable VIP, loyalty, and referral programs can be to your customers (and your company), this section would definitely be empty if we didn’t say it.
Aside from these more structured methods of showing your appreciation, you also don’t want to overlook the value of more personable, “just because” appreciation measures:
Once more, such highly-personal and personable engagements will definitely stand out in your customers’ minds - especially considering how rare it is for most companies to take such an approach.
Take Your Relationships to the Next Level
Piggybacking off of our last point, perhaps the best advice we can give for building authentic relationships with your customers is this:
Forget about the business side of things. Instead, focus on the fact that your company is run by human beings, and operates to serve other human beings.
There’s no tactic or strategy, here. Just as there’s no real “trick” to building authentic relationships with friends and loved ones, at the core of the company-customer relationship lies the human factor.
Now, when we say forget about the business side of things, we mean that there will come certain times in which putting business gains, company policies, and all that on the back burner will be necessary to ensure the well-being of your customers.
A prime example of this is the popular story of a Trader Joe’s employee trekking through a winter storm to deliver groceries to an elderly customer who was stranded at home. While this is pretty heartwarming in itself, it’s even more so when you consider that that Trader Joe’s location didn’t have a delivery policy. So, not only did the employee take it upon themself to go above and beyond the call of duty, but their supervisors didn’t allow policy to get in the way of their customer’s safety.Again, while the nature of the relationship between ecommerce companies and their clientele is a bit disconnected, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for ways to go above and beyond for your customers. In fact, this gives you even more of a reason to do so; since your competitors probably aren’t doing so, it will make your company stand out in the eyes of your customers even more.