How Much of a Relationship Do Customers Actually Want?

by Hutch Carpenter

How Much of a Relationship Do Customers Actually Want?On the Harvard Business Review, Matt Dixon and Lara Ponomareff wrote a piece that caught my eye, Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You. Consumers increasingly prefer self-service, and the authors speculate:

Maybe customers are shifting toward self service because they don’t want a relationship with companies. While this secular trend could be explained away as just a change in consumers’ channel preferences, skeptics might argue that customers never wanted the kind of relationship that companies have always hoped for, and that self service now allows customers the “out” they’ve been looking for all along.

For managers hell-bent on deepening relationships with their customers, that’s a sobering thought.

That last line is particularly relevant to the new thinking: that companies need to engage their customers in “conversations”, which social media is enabling. A related question to ask is, do they really want a “relationship” at all with companies?

What exactly is a “relationship”?

Let’s start with an important point: what exactly is a “relationship”? Put simply, it’s a two-way connection I have with you based on some form of interaction(s). In that sense, buying a product from a company qualifies as a “relationship”. But that’s insufficient. We want to know how deep is the relationship?

The thinking of Mark Granovetter is relevant, provided helpfully by Lithium’s Michael Wu. Four elements determine the depth of a relationship:

  1. Time spend together
  2. Emotional intensity
  3. Intimacy (mutual confiding)
  4. Reciprocity

Now, apply those elements of relationship to the way you think about companies from which you buy. What’s the emotional intensity you have with the power company? Do you find yourself confiding with Amazon.com when you purchase something? How much time are you and your bank spending together?

Those questions point to a more commonly understood definition for relationship: high scores on the four Granovetter dimensions. But scoring high on those dimensions is an insurmountable hurdle for most companies vis-à-vis their customers.

The job your product is hired to do

This idea that companies need to think in terms of the “job their product has been hired to do” is one I learned from Clayton Christensen, Harvard professor and author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” It’s understanding why the customer buys your product, and what needs it fulfills. “Needs” often being different than thinking in terms of the features a product has.

This is what defines the relationship customers want to have with a company.

Leading social CRM thinker Wim Rampen argues this in his post Social CRM – What Relationships Should You Care For, And Why? In the post, he states this:

From a company’s perspective, a relationship with your Customers is not what you need most. You need most to understand what job it is your Customers are trying to get done.

Wim is spot on. That’s the innovation mantra. Nicely applied to social CRM.

The depth of a customer’s relationship depends on the job you’re hired to do

My interest in having a relationship – the deeper, more commonly understood definition – with a company is directly proportional to the complexity of the job I’ve hired you to do, as follows:

When Do Customers Want a Relationship?

Here’s how the different jobs size up.

Efficiency, simplicity, convenience

In a consumer-based world, we have but only so much bandwidth for purchasing things which require lots of our time to engage and use. Mostly, we need commodities.

And you know what? We need ‘em fast, reliable and without taking up a lot of time. In this bucket o’ jobs-to-be-done, spending a lot of cycles engaging with many companies in ongoing relationships just will not cut it. How would you get anything else done?

It’s as Jon Husband shared with me on Twitter:

Do they even want a relationship with companies? #scrm #acinsights – I don’t

The nature of relationships in this scenario is transactional. And there’s nothing wrong with that. My bank gives me efficiency, low cost and no hassles. I’m loyal, but I don’t have a deep relationship with them.

They just happen to satisfy well a job of convenience and efficiency I need done.

Episodic interaction events

Mountain Dew ran a great social media campaign called DEWmocracy. DEWmocracy got consumers involved in a number of initiatives:

  • Ad agency selection
  • New flavor selection
  • New drink names
  • Package creation

The campaign was a great example of an episodic event to drive interactions. This was relationship-building beyond the core product offering. What made it successful is that it extended the job-to-be-done. Sure, Mountain Dew tastes great, and you can enjoy cans of it. That alone really points toward convenience and simplicity, the lowest=level relationship.

But Mountain Dew was able to elevate the complexity of the job. It got people involved in the support processes for the production and distribution. Genius, and of course, risky. But many consumers responded. They found it fun to participate, and Mountain Dew reciprocated, as Ad Age notes:

Once you’ve engaged consumers, you can’t stop. Mtn Dew made an effort to let consumers know why it was taking their advice, as well as why it wasn’t.

Now that DEWmocracy has mostly run its course, the relationship will become shallow again. Until the next event. But it has raised market awareness, and established what the company is about in consumers’ minds.

One last note here. Old Spice’s recent social media marketing blitz was not an example of addressing the job-to-be-done. It was pure marketing awareness, a point well-made by Jacob Morgan. And it worked.

Complex job, long-term usage

SAP. When you think of SAP software, do you think, “lightweight, simple-to-use, rip-n-replace anytime?” No, you don’t. SAP software is legendarily complex and powerful. They are a huge company with thousands of customers, billions in revenue and myriad business applications.

This is a complex job-to-be-done.

SAP maintains a strong customer community and extended ecosystem (including the SAP Developer Network) to manage its relationships with customers. Which makes absolute sense considering the complexity of the job-to-be-done. Customers want a relationship with SAP. Frankly, they need it.

Complex jobs often mean several things for customers:

  • Recurring need to interact with the company for information
  • Higher switching costs, increasing the need to understand what the company’s future direction is
  • Variety of use cases, meaning many ideas for future product versions

It is in these situations where the popular notion of “relationship” most closely matches what customers seek.

The core focus is the job-to-be-done

Clayton Christensen wrote this with regard to the way companies should consider their customers:

With few exceptions, every job people need or want to do has a social, a functional, and an emotional dimension. If marketers understand each of these dimensions, then they can design a product that’s precisely targeted to the job. In other words, the job, not the customer, is the fundamental unit of analysis for a marketer who hopes to develop products that customers will buy.

That’s the perspective from companies toward customers, not so much for relationships, but for product features.

The job is also the fundamental unit of analysis going the other way, customers toward companies. Understanding the complexity of the job-to-be-done points to how deep a relationship customers want.

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Hutch CarpenterHutch Carpenter is the Vice President of Product at Spigit. Spigit integrates social collaboration tools into a SaaS enterprise idea management platform used by global Fortune 2000 firms to drive innovation.

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  1. Excellent points. As consumers (forget about our business personas) we purchase from an absolute myriad of producers/vendors. For the vast majority, we have neither the time nor desire to “engage” in anything other than a successful purchase. Valuable, timely, works as designed, etc.

    But as you point out, when customers DO have a vested interest in changing or improving a product (and we think it would benefit other customers) we must have the conversation. We should want to be part of it. Still, that doesn’t mean the Dewocracy wants my vote.

  2. Hutch, I agree and disagree. I attempt to further the conversation here: https://bit.ly/9A0OTb

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