Today, there is a big emphasis on productivity in sales and customer service. Increasingly, customers are given tools to place their own orders, check on their status, and so on. In-person sales calls cost hundreds of dollars (some estimates run over a thousand dollars), so an emphasis on efficiency is understandable. And, as a customer myself, I appreciate being able to initiate orders, check on them, etc. at any time of the day or night. CRM software further strives to improve the efficiency of sales contacts by helping separate customers into priority groups, with the most important getting the most contact.

In this drive for efficiency, though, companies need to be aware of the importance of contact time to the customer relationship. Let’s look at three wildly different groups of “customers” and see how contact time played an important role in their satisfaction.

Convicted Felons. How do you think that felons – convicted felons, that is – would rate the fairness of their legal process? One might expect a rather high level of dissatisfaction (their defense was unsuccessful, after all), with the main variables being objective measures like length of sentence. In fact, as described in Sway by authors Ori and Rom Brafman,when researchers surveyed hundreds of such felons, length of sentence WAS a major predictor of their fairness rating. Short sentences made the legal process more fair, longer sentences less so.

The surprising finding was that nearly as important as the outcome was the time their lawyer spent with them. The felons who had more face time with their lawyer considered the process more fair than other felons with the same outcome. The Brafmans note, “…although the outcome might be exactly the same, when we don’t get to voice our concerns, we perceive the overall fairness of the experience quite differently.”

Venture Capitalists. Despite the sometimes rapacious behavior ascribed to them by entrepreneurs, one would have to admit that Silicon Valley venture capitalists are quite a bit different than the drug dealers and armed robbers in the felon study. It turns out that the VCs and felons have more in common than a desire for fast cash. When surveyed about their investments and relationships with the management teams at those firms, the researchers expected a hard-headed focus on the ROI of each investment. After all, the objective of the activity is to earn a high return on invested capital, and VC firms sink or swim based on their numbers.

Surprisingly, also as recounted in Sway, the researchers found that the amount and timeliness of feedback from the entrepreneurs was a key factor in the level of trust extended by the VCs and their level of support for management strategies. The Brafmans note that the willingness of an entrepreneur to keep investors updated has little to do with the bottom line and could sway the VCs into less than optimum decisions. (I suppose there could be a correlation with how good or bad the situation is at the firm with the willingness to talk to the VCs, making this bias not entirely irrational. Supposedly, the researchers controlled for this in their survey analysis.)

Injured Patients. Malcolm Gladwell describes why some doctors get sued for malpractice and others don’t:

…the overwhelming number of people who suffer an injury due to the negligence of a doctor never file a malpractice suit at all. In other words, patients don’t file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care and something else happens to them.

What is that something else? It’s how they were treated, on a personal level, by their doctor. What comes up again and again in malpractice cases is that patients say they were rushed or ignored or treated poorly. [Emphasis added. Read more at USA Today’s excerpt from Blink.]

Think about that – most people who have suffered a potentially devastating injury because of a medical error do NOT sue their doctor if they feel that they were treated fairly and that the doctor was doing his or her best. This belief, in turn, is based on the quantity of time spent and the quality of that interaction.

Implication for Sales and Customer Relations

The takeaway from all this is that important customer relationships need to include listening to the customer. This may mean face time for big customers, perhaps phone time or even web chat for smaller ones. And these contacts can’t be one-way sales pitches – the customer needs to believe his concerns are being heard.

Is this difficult? Often, yes. Is it expensive? Perhaps not. Just about every customer relationship is tested – missed delivery dates, unexpected price increases, or an aggressive competitor… if you want your company to be like the doctor whose patient defends him – even after an injury-causing mistake – you need to have invested the time in cultivating the relationship BEFORE that relationship is put to the test. Time really IS precious.

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