Larry Hochman: How to bridge the 'promise gap' with the customer

25th Jan 2010

For years, customers have been growing increasingly cynical about the gap that exists between the promises that companies make to them and the realities of what is actually delivered. Larry Hochman explains how customers can once again trust your business.

The urgency of the economic moment is clear. No one alone has all the answers. This recession has created a massive disruption in the way that organisations relate to the people they serve, and amplified customers’ sense of being taken for granted at a time when everyone is cynical, angry and full of anxiety. You are now faced with one commercial ‘fact of life’: the ability to build and maintain successful customer relationships, during and after the recession, is the key to the survival of your business. 

This is where ‘unique value’ has always been created, value that can seldom, if ever, be replicated by any competitor. The companies which emerge from the recession will be the ones which have both the clarity and the confidence to focus on customer relationships to make their businesses unique; to create ‘unique value’, and therefore create ‘value for life’.
The identification of ‘value For life’ must be your quest: pinpointing where it exists, growing it, nurturing it, protecting it, sustaining it, helping everyone who works with you and for you to focus on it and to see it as a key strategic priority – perhaps the most important of all priorities! Service and products based on simplicity, speed, agility, transparency and honesty. Brand value based on under-promising and over-delivering. Customer relationships which are not one-night-stands, but rather grow richer over time, where trust is built, earned and maintained.   
Increasingly cynical
For years, customers have been growing increasingly cynical about the gap that exists between the promises that companies make to them and the realities of what is actually delivered. Far from just cynical, they actually believe that companies (and governments) are lying to them. The recession has changed what they value, who they trust, how and what they wish to purchase, and hardened their determination to punish. Let down, exhausted, feeling out of control, they are seeking the stability of business relationships where companies feel loyal to THEM, where small kindnesses are practised, where recognition is commonplace, where simplicity and speed are the rule not the exception, and where more often than not promises are kept rather than broken. 
The crucial thing which all companies must understand is that almost everything in your business can be replicated. Competing on price isn’t hard – anyone can do it, today, tomorrow, as you’re reading this sentence. Competing on product is easy too – there are people in China and India waiting to take any innovation to pieces, and put it back together again, faster, better and cheaper. 
The things that can’t be replicated are the relationships you have with your customers. The one to one interactions that you build up with them, over days and weeks and months and years, which are truly unique and which are truly earned. They cannot simply be ‘Googled’. It is within these relationships where ‘unique value’ in your company is created. These relationships are the key to sustainable business success. Like all relationships, however, the relationships that you have with your customers must be based on trust that is earned. Think of the closest, most important relationship in your own personal life – most likely it is the relationship you have with your husband, wife, partner or lover. 
What customers want
Those of you who have experienced the collapse of trust in a marriage will know this hard truth: the things that made that personal relationship uniquely valuable are hard to recover. Often the relationship will never recover. Faced with exactly this kind of collapse in many of their businesses relationships owing to the recession, customers will now dump you faster than you ever imagined possible if they no longer trust you. They are likely to demand unprecedented levels of transparency, openness, accountability, honesty and delivery in order to trust you in the future. This is a revolution - their revolution - and the ease with which customers can walk away from you, never tell you why, instead tell 10,000 others in their online community about how you lost their trust – is today’s post-recession era reality.
Customer relationships are also uniquely important and valuable because they are this fragile. Again, like your personal relationships, they can take years to work on and develop and grow. And yet, overnight, by just one bad mistake, one small indication that rather than valuing your customers you have contempt for them, or take them for granted, or lied to them, or over- promised and under-delivered, a customer might walk away and NEVER return.   
Several years ago, customer relationship management (CRM) software was heralded as a new dawn for business, a way in which important commercial relationships could be strengthened and maintained by the collection of information, believing this was the road to perfecting the art of customer loyalty. Companies all over the world invested thousands, and sometimes even millions, installing software to track and manage customers. Looking back, it’s hard to assert this made any strategic difference at all to the way that customers felt about the companies they interacted with, or to levels of customer loyalty. Indeed, it may even have been corrosive to both. 
Software can't de-risk relationships
The belief that loyalty could be sustained by the collection of information led to customers being commoditised, whereas the truth is that relationships are not that mechanical: that’s what makes them scary and wonderful. There’s no way to 'de-risk' relationships through software, which was the basic (if unspoken) promise of CRM – all you can do is make sure that everyone in your company genuinely understands how important relationships are, fully understands how they link to the bottom-line, and works at strengthening them all the time no matter what their job is. Many have been led to believe that everything can be measured and quantified. Yet a 'customer for life’ is such a valuable thing that it’s genuinely priceless! 
There is a ‘relationship revolution’ now underway and it will take several different forms, with new ways of doing business and thinking about customers to emerge from it. One of the most important aspects of this revolution is the exponential power customers now have to communicate and participate and collaborate, all to either reward or punish you depending on your ability to deliver on your promises. Much has been written about how the new social networks will change the way that products are marketed. Much less has been written about the implications that this has for the survival of your business. 
In a world where customers are connected, and can organize in huge numbers at very short notice, they are in fact forming ‘customer unions’, more powerful than trade unions ever were in the commercial success of your business. We are yet to fully understand the implications of this. It is likely, though, that these fleeting, ephemeral, and yet ferociously influential ‘customer unions’ may well have effects on business in the post-recession era to be THE dominant factor in the determination of commercial success – or failure. Word of mouth and reputation are now far, far more important than advertising. The terrifying and exciting thing is that, unlike advertising, you can’t buy word of mouth. You can’t pay astronomical fees to an agency to create and manage a reputation for you. You need to work at these in every interaction, every single day. 
'Someone like me'
Again and again, when people are asked who they most trust to recommend a product or service to them, they come up with the same answer: ‘someone like me’ (Edelman Trust Barometer, 2006). That’s not you, or your marketing team, or your advertising partner. That’s their neighbour, their family, their work colleagues, the other members of their on-line community, i.e. the other members of their increasingly powerful ‘customer union’. Your customers want you to tell the truth, they want you to deliver on your promises, they want their lives made less complicated not more; they want service and information at the speed of LIFE, their life, made easier by the products and services you offer. They want someone to say ‘I’m sorry’ and mean it when something goes wrong, 
Customer relationships are not the only relationships that matter in business. In fact, relationships are at the heart of everything that happens in a business. Customer relationships may be your commercial life-or-death, but there are many others that are equally significant. These are relationships with: colleagues, business partners, investors, competitors, media, and sometimes with the government. The success or failure of these relationships is determined, like all others, on levels of trust established and maintained, and they all will have a demonstrable effect on your ability to attract and retain customers and create unique value in your business.    
Nothing threatens the longevity of a relationship more than broken promises. Except, of course, lies. Broken promises betray trust: lies multiply the damage and the rot. If you accept the basic premise that customer relationships will be perhaps THE dominant factor in determining success in the post-recession era, then you must become obsessed with closing the customer ‘promise gap’, which exists to some extent in every company – including yours. It must be one of your strategic imperatives. The need to do this must be communicated (over and over and over again) throughout your organisation – and at every level. The ‘promise gap’ today is lethal, as real-time reviews of customer experiences will dominate opinion in the years to come, forcing you to keep your promises in order to survive.  
Larry Hochman spent 10 years in Senior Management roles with British Airways and the loyalty management company, Air Miles, in both New York and London. His roles included Director of Customer Service and separately, Director of People and Culture - being the first person in Britain to hold this title. Since 1998, he has been running his own speaking, mentoring, and consulting business. Larry Hochman is one of the most popular keynote speakers in the world and was recently voted European Business Speaker of the Year by Speakers for Business. His new book ‘THE RELATIONSHIP REVOLUTION’ is on sale later this month, published by John Wiley and Sons. Visit for more details.

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