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The Dos and Don’ts of Relationship Marketing

By Joshua Kraus

A popular Reddit thread had users discussing how different companies had forever won their business.

One of the top posts was about the outdoor apparel company MooseJaw.

The Redditor described how his roommate had ordered a hoodie from MooseJaw as a Christmas present for his girlfriend. Then, a few weeks before Christmas, she broke up with him.

The roommate sent the hoodie back to MooseJaw for a refund, and in the “reason for returning” column, he wrote “girlfriend dumped me.”

Three weeks later he received a large package from MooseJaw.

Inside was a selection of t-shirts and MooseJaw stickers. There was also a card that read, “We're sorry your girlfriend broke up with you, we decided to give you a gift."

The rest of the card was filled with notes and jokes from MooseJaw staff members.

This is an example of a relationship marketing investment at its finest.

In relationship marketing, the explicit goal is not to land a transaction, it’s to foster customer loyalty and long-term engagement. But relationship marketing is a tricky business.

A handwritten note, for example, can be seen as sincere and exclusive, as was the case in the above example. But if MooseJaw had ignored the context of the returned hoodie and had instead sent the customer a generic note expressing their apologies for the unwanted product, the move might have come across as disingenuous.

Getting relationship marketing right requires an extra level of empathy and awareness.

When you’re broadcasting to a large group of people, there is no expectation of personalization.

You can be more generic with your message, more sweeping with your statements. But when you zoom in on one person, there are expectations, and those expectations are high.

Here are some dos and don'ts of relationship marketing.

Do: Focus on Free Will Investments Over Contractually Obligated Ones

Ah, free will. It may not vibe in the Garden of Eden, but it’s a hot commodity in relationship marketing.

“When customers perceive relationship marketing (RM) investments as an act of free will, they feel more grateful than when they perceive the actions as duty-based obligations or contractual requirements,” writes Robert Palmatier et al. in “The Role of Customer Gratitude in Relationship Marketing.”

In the MooseJaw example, the company sent the customer a gift under no obligation.

The action would not have been as effective if the gift had been, for example, part of a loyalty program.

While loyalty programs are a smart way of retaining customers, they don’t inspire the same gratitude in the customer as a spontaneous gift.

This is because a loyalty program is a contractual obligation, and doesn’t reflect the same thoughtfulness as an investment made out of free will.

Furthermore, a customer will value a relationship marketing investment less if:

  • It’s something that everyone receives.
  • It’s a response to a customer request.
  • It’s only given to match a competing offer.
  • It comes standard with the product or service.

This is not to say that any of the above investments should be done away with. They are, of course, integral to any respectable business, but as relationship marketing tools, they are not as effective as free will investments.

Don’t: Wait To Provide An Opportunity For The Customer To Reciprocate

It doesn’t matter if a company sends a birthday card or a year’s worth of free skydiving lessons, in time, the customer’s gratitude will decay.

In the worst case scenario, a customer may eventually “generate feelings of guilt, which customers may try to relieve by rationalizing why they did not reciprocate,” Robert Palmatier et al. writes.

To take advantage of their gratitude when it’s at its highest level, companies should provide customers with the opportunity to reciprocate (time-sensitive discount, new product/service reminder) soon after those skydiving tickets arrive in the mail.

But like everything else, this must be done with tact. If a company consistently surprises a customer with a gift or a favor, only to immediately follow it up by announcing a new opportunity, the investment will lose its sincerity, and be viewed as just another marketing ploy.

Do: Play It Safe Unless You Really Know The Customer

Maybe you’ve heard this story, or a variation thereof.

A company wants to thank a client for her continued business.

Rather than write a card or give the client a discount, the company sends the client a nice bottle of wine. It turns out that the client is a recovering alcoholic. He takes his business elsewhere.

This is an extreme example, but it speaks to the larger issue.

When trying to foster loyalty, you wouldn’t send an alcoholic a bottle of wine any more than you would send an avid golf player tickets to a basketball game. At face value it’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t show the client that they’re appreciated, it shows them that they’re a stranger.

If a company wants to step outside of the box and forgo the traditional birthday card in favor of something more personal, they first need to make sure that it is truly personal. Put in the small amount effort it takes to learn a little something about the customer.

It really isn’t that difficult.

A quick browse of someone’s Twitter or Facebook can provide a year’s worth of gift ideas.

A simple conversation that ventures slightly out of standard business territory can yield worthy insight into a customer’s personal life.

“What did you do over the weekend?”

“I went fishing.”

“You like to fish?”

“Yes.”

Now you know what to get them. Fishing stuff.

And unless the client specifically tells you that they currently drink alcohol, refrain from sending it as a gift. Just in case.

Don’t: Make An Investment That’s Irrelevant To The Customer’s Situation and Needs

The MooseJaw customer didn’t necessarily need the free shirts and stickers.

What he needed was compassion for his situation.

MooseJaw understood that, and their box of goodies was secondary to the gesture itself.

Without the note expressing MooseJaw’s sympathy, the investment would not have had the same impact.

The guy’s girlfriend broke up with him. What are a few shirts going to do?

“The customer’s perceived need for the received benefit should affect his or her gratitude,” according to Robert Palmatier et al.

A great example of a relevant relationship marketing investment belongs to the Gaylord Opryland hotel in Nashville.

One of their customers, Christina McMenemy, became enamored with an alarm clock in her hotel room, which played the kind of light music you would find in a spa.

She wanted one of her own, but couldn’t find it available anywhere online.

So she reached out to the hotel via Twitter and was told that their alarm clocks were not available to the public.

McMenemy was about to give up the search when she returned to her hotel room and found two alarm clocks and a handwritten letter. It said they were for her to keep.

McMenemy’s response was what every relationship marketing investment should hope to achieve.

She said that Gaylord Opryland “reaffirmed that there are still companies out there focused on great service, and you’ve made a lifelong fan out of me.”

A lifelong fan. That’s the dream.

Conclusion

Relationship marketing investments can foster customer loyalty and long-term engagement, but to be most effective, they must be executed with thought and precision.

Marketers should focus on spontaneous, free will investments over those which are contractually obligated and shouldn’t wait too long before providing the customer with a reciprocal opportunity.

Marketers wanting to go the extra mile need to actually know something real about the customer beforehand, and strive to provide the customer with a relevant investment.

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