Relational Living (5): Customer Relationships

At work today we were running through a virtual version of Forum‘s program, Achieving Service Excellence, on Adobe Connect Pro. Forum was a pioneer in “customer service” and organizations still come to us because our deep experience and expertise in the customer experience. For years ASE (and its companion, Managing Service Excellence) has helped fancy ice-cream stores, banks, hotels, gas stations and more improve customer satisfaction, retention and spend. A center-piece of ASE is a simple but powerful ‘customer interaction cycle’. And the model presumes you’re going to see the customer again.

Relational Proximity Dimension #2 is Continuity or Time: our relationship is formed and strengthened by the amount, frequency and span of time we are together. ‘Together’ is a function of directness (Dimension #1), so even if you only have an online relationship with someone Continuity will likely still strengthen the relationship.

I’d argue that if we meet once, we don’t really have a relationship. Not that I would approach you like that, especially if I’m a customer service representative. If I meet you once, but expect to meet you again, and you expect to meet me again, then suddenly it’s as though something is at stake, so trust is required and therefore a relationship is established. You can see how the expectation of a future meeting might change how we treat someone.

Two sets of vendor-client relationships may have met exactly the same number of times but because one set has an expectation of a future there is inevitably more depth and seriousness to the relationship. Historical perspective works the same way; having a sense of common history together means you can think and feel and say, “That was us, you and me! We did that. We went through that together!”.

Or, of course, you could look back and say “you keep screwing me over!”. Continuity, like the other dimensions, is a necessary basis of a good relationship but doesn’t guarantee it.

Whether with a customer or a friend, try recalling your history together, and discuss plans for the short or long-term future. Then actually start meeting regularly! See how that changes your sense of the health and vitality of the relationship.

Relational Living (4): Forgiveness

Ill-health and even violence in a relationship between individuals, groups, tribes and nations is likely most often due to an asymmetry in power. More likely it’s due to an abuse, real or perceived, of that asymmetry by the powerful over the powerless. And even more likely it’s due to an acute sense of injustice over past abuses and an unwillingness or inability to forgive.

When you’ve been the victim of what you perceive to be an injustice you feel like someone owes you something. There’s a debt outstanding. And until that debt is paid, until “justice is done”, you cannot rest easy and certainly your relationship with that person or tribe or institution will not be happy or healthy. The deep tragedy of those unwilling to forgive, however, is that non-forgiveness represents a holding on, almost a dependency, almost a sense of powerlessness. It’s as though the offender dominates you, controls and manipulates you, keeps you from sleeping, keeps you from enjoying yourself, keeps you from “moving on” to form new and better relationships. And all this while they, usually, walk around blissfully unaware they’ve done anything wrong!

Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity or Balance. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else, the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.

That all sounds like a major power asymmetry to me. But in this case the exercise of that power, in what almost feels like even further abuse, is entirely self-inflicted. Yes, of course, if the offender somehow repays something then in a sense justice is done. But their attempts at righting the wrong mean nothing if you don’t forgive them.

It seems that one of the major reasons for relational problems caused by power asymmetry is that we equate power with value. The second major reason is that we ascribe or devolve power to another simply by not forgiving them. These two things we can evidently do something about. Can you imagine the mental and relational liberation if we saw people as equally valuable (no matter how powerful they were) and if we forgave them (even if they didn’t seek forgiveness)? These things are within our responsibility and ability to do.

However, the Power problem of forgiveness also works the other way, maybe more so. It’s less about you having a sense of powerlessness because you can’t let go of the offense of the other person. Rather, YOU hold the power over the offender because you refuse to forgive. This is where the language of ‘debt’ is helpful. Who holds the power, the lender or the person with the debt? If you know what it feels not to be forgiven when you’re desperately sorry, you know how much power the offended person has.

In any case, whether you’re the offender or the offended, whether you feel powerless or powerful, an awareness of this dynamic can help explain why the relationship feels as it does. It also points to the need for candid and courageous conversation where confession and forgiveness can happen.

In the series Relational Living, Simon Fowler explores what Relational Thinking means in our day-to-day lives. The articles appeared earlier on his personal blog and are republished with his permission. The first three in this series were published on 9,  16 and 23 January.

Relational Living (3): Neuroscience

It turns out, according to neuroscience research gathered together in David Rock’s popular book, Your Brain at Work, that our brains are wired for social connection.

No WAY!?

I hear you thinking. Sorry for the sarcasm. But just writing that first sentence made me realize how ‘duh!’ it is that the brain would be wired in such a way that matches how we experience life. Anyway, here’s a tidbit of the neuroscience (social cognitive neuroscience, to be precise) that appears to support “Directness”. And it’s all based on recent (since 1995) discoveries of “mirror neurons”.

Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness” or “Touch”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully. It can also be mediated, even when face to face, by dishonesty and fakeness: there’s a real me and a real you, any fronts we put up reduces directness.

It’s a pretty cool discovery actually (despite my ‘duh!’ comment). Mirror neurons, scattered throughout the brain, light up when they observe “intentional action”. That is, they won’t light up if they see random acts, but if they discern intent behind the action, the same neurons fire in their brains as though they themselves were doing it. (Effects of commercials on children, anyone?). The powerful limbic system that triggers a response to threats or rewards obviously kicks in once the intent has been discerned. Here’s the explanation from Christian Keysers, a leading mirror neuron research based in Holland:

“What happens is that when we witness another’s facial expressions, we activate the same in our own motor cortex, but we also transmit this information to the insula, involved in our emotions. When I see your facial expression, I get the movement of your face, which drives the same motor response on my face, so a smile gets a smile. The motor resonance is also sent on to your own emotional centers, so you share the emotion of the person in front of you.” (p160)

Here are a couple of other quotes from the book that seem to support the idea that ‘directness’ is an important factor in building good relationships:

“The more social cures that are stripped out of communication, the greater the likelihood that the intent will be misread. “The more we can see each other, the better we can match emotional states”. (P160)

Collaboration with people you don’t know well is a threat for the brain. Perhaps, after millions of years living in small groups, the automatic response to strangers is “don’t trust them”. (p162)

An abundance of social cues makes people connect more richly, perhaps in challenging ways at times. For example, when there is an abundance of social cues, emotional information can travel swiftly between people in a type of contagion.” (p161)

And now a few application thoughts/questions (some mine, some from the book):

1) Workplace learning. What learning performance is lost with online training? Do virtual worlds provide a close enough approximation to real-life that our brains might learn social behaviors from avatars? Is there an optimum amount of time a team needs to gather face to face to be most effective? (I’ve misplaced a piece of research MIT did on that, something to do with a ‘pulse’ (gathering, moving away to research, coming back again, pulse-like).

2) Management. Think that your attitude or stress-level has no effect on your workers? Their brains can’t help but be affected by you.

3) Communication. Precisely because we don’t want to discern another person’s reaction (and therefore trigger a reaction of our own), we resort to sending emails, or doing nothing, rather than face them.

4) Autism spectrum. It appears that mirror neurons show damage in people with autism. It also appears that therein lies a clue to a better response/treatment.

In the series Relational Living, Simon Fowler explores what Relational Thinking means in our day-to-day lives. The articles appeared earlier on his personal blog and are republished with his permission. The first two in this series were published on 9 and 16 January.