With the emphasis recently on customer relationship management (CRM), it seems there's a customer love-fest in the making. It's an orgy, almost: Every company wants a close relationship with me, and they want one with you, too. They want close relationships with their business buyers and suppliers.

Of course, as the name spells out, what they really want to do is "manage" these close relationships.

There's one small thing missing from all this talk about customer relationships, both on and off the web. Not every customer (and, in particular, not every business customer or supplier) wants a close relationship, nor do they want to be managed. (See an earlier piece, "When Do B2B Customers Want a Close Relationship?")

CRM alone can't build the close relationships companies promised—those long term relationships that couldn't be broken. Instead, CRM should be called CSM, for customer service management. That more faithfully represents what companies are trying to do—manage and improve poor customer service. Even companies that get it—like customer-friendly Amazon—don't offer the model for a close "relationship."

Let the so-called pundits and experts drone on about CRM technology, integrated data stores, and processes.

If you want to build a forever relationship with your customers, you need to first step back from the rhetoric spewed by technologists (and, in fact, a lot of the so-called experts who write books about B2B relationships but don't know what they're talking about).

Instead, you need to think about what a relationship really is, before setting into play the necessary steps to build and manage long-term relationships headed by any type of technological solution.

Relationships Are Confusing

In fact, as I hope you know from personal experience, relationships are complex. Building a long-term relationship, like a good marriage, is both hard and time-consuming, which is why book stores are filled with volumes on relationship counseling.

Long-term B2B relationships are no less difficult.

The entire subject gets real confusing pretty quickly, especially when you start thinking hard about whether you're currently in a good relationship. Here's why:

  1. You may think you have a close relationship when you don't. By definition, relationships involve two partners. What you consider a close relationship might seem otherwise to your partner, leading to quarrels and bickering. In a B2B context, this means you'll be haggling with your partner over the price, delivery, specs, and so on.
  2. Both partners seem as if they want a close relationship, even if they really don't. If your partner convinces you they are in it for the long haul, you'll end up giving them all sorts of stuff—like your time, energy, concessions, and so on. They'll gladly take these things and then run off with a competitor.

Don't be fooled. Not everybody wants a close relationship.

Are You in a Close Relationship?

So how do you know whether you're in a close relationship? There are some clear sign posts you can use. Think of one of your business partners—a business supplier or customer, perhaps—and answer these questions honestly:

  • Do you and your partner care about each other? In a B2B context, each party should care whether the other one makes money... along with themselves. If so, are you willing to give up something to make that happen? If not, you don't have a close relationship.
  • Do you and your partner think long-term about the relationship? There's no room for short-term commitments here. For example, if a low price is the basis of a relationship, it's probably not a committed one.
  • Are you both proactive when it comes to problem-solving and to preventing problems? No relationship is issue-free. You should be working to anticipate problems and solving them when they arise.
  • Do you trust your partner and does your partner trust you? Yeah, yeah... of course you trust each other. But do you really? Don't fool yourself into thinking you have a close relationship if there isn't a solid sense of mutual trust.

Trust me on this one: If you don't have these qualities in your B2B relationship, it's not working. Co-dependent relationships and one-night stands also appear to work quite well... but only until something a little healthier comes along.

The reality is this: Close long-term relationships between B2B partners involve much, much more balance.

Dependence Is the Key

Feeling dependency is part of life. We form partnerships, strike buying contracts, integrate business processes and enact all sorts of contracts and deals that make us dependent on each other. That's natural.

But the bad stuff comes when the balance is less equal, when the dependency comes from one partner leaning on another and not receiving support in return. That doesn't feel good... and that's natural too. This is what researchers call "asymmetric dependence."

If you want to have a lifetime relationship, both you and your partner need to perceive symmetric dependence. It's as simple and as hard as that. If it's not symmetric:

  • Expect problems to start dominating your interactions.
  • Expect the partner who is more dependent to start looking for a replacement (or a second source).
  • Anticipate the dissolution of your relationship when a better partner comes along.

Competing with Your Customer

Here's a classic illustration of this dynamic.

Let's say you're a music label selling through distributors. One day you decide you can make more money by forgoing the music stores and selling direct to customers via the Internet. You're surprised when the music stores pitch a fit over this move.

But what have you done? You've created asymmetric dependence (the music stores perceive they're dependent on you for a certain artist's music, but they perceive that you aren't dependent on them—since you're now selling direct).

If you're going to compete with a customer (as the label did with the music store), you're going to have problems. The only way to deal with this is to either stop competing altogether, or find a way to limit the degree by which you compete (by, for example, restricting your online sales to certain artists).

However it's done, competing with a customer is typically a set-up for disaster, so you shouldn't be surprised when disaster strikes.

Coming in Part 2: Fresh vs. Dried Flowers

In a future issue, I'll explain how to create a symmetric dependence, but for now consider the following question: It's Valentine's Day and you have the option to give someone fresh or dried flowers. The right choice will help cement a long-term relationship. Knowing not only which one will do this but WHY it will do so will truly help you build B2B relationships that will last a lifetime.

Note: This MarketingProfs "Classic Truths" articles was originally published on 4/30/2002. Also see the second part of the article: "A Match Made in Heaven: Make Your Business Relationships Last."

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image of Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is MarketingProfs founder and CEO, positioning consultant, and emeritus professor of marketing. Over the years he has worked with companies such as Texas Instruments, Informix, Vanafi, and EMI Music Distribution to help them position their products defensively in a competitive environment. He is also the founder of Insight4Peace and the former director of Mindful USC.